TN-China Network Blog

Tennessee R&D and Tech Commercialization Programs Provide Opportunities for TN-China Collaboration

As Tennessee has made progress toward developing its high-tech economy, China too is seeking to move up the economic value chain and develop its high-tech R&D capabilities. Though not yet tapped, significant potential exists for Chinese companies to collaborate with Tennessee companies and institutions on R&D and commercialization of new technology in both the US and Chinese markets.

Tennessee has a wide range of R&D and tech commercialization resources across the state that Chinese companies could take advantage of through partnerships with local Tennessee companies.

East Tennessee in particular has a very strong network of organizations supporting tech commercialization, with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF) serving as the main hubs for tech commercialization activity in the region.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the US Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory, conducting basic and applied research in the areas of clean energy and global security, with particular focus on:

  • materials science and engineering,
  • computer and computational science,
  • neutron scattering,
  • neutron science and technology,
  • biological and environmental research,
  • nuclear physics and engineering,
  • nuclear energy technologies,
  • fusion science and technology, and
  • energy efficiency and renewable energy (building technologies, advanced manufacturing, transportation technologies).

The ORNL Science and Technology Partnerships Directorate Technology Licensing program works with private sector partners to license technologies developed at ORNL, with the mission of growing the regional and US economy and encouraging entrepreneurship while promoting business opportunities.

The UT Research Foundation, with offices in Knoxville and Memphis, has a mission to encourage innovation, enhance research, and facilitate economic development through commercializing intellectual property created within the University of Tennessee system. Target sectors include:

  • Agriculture – biofuels, crops and germplasms, research tools and reagents;
  • Biotechnology – cellulosic materials, energy, bioinformatics, sensors;
  • Chemistry – materials, software, drug design;
  • Engineering – solar, industrial, chemical processes;
  • Health Sciences – diagnostics, medical devices, compounds, therapeutics;
  • Pharmaceuticals; and
  • Veterinary Sciences – devices, simulations.

Both ORNL and the University of Tennessee (UT) collaborate with each other and other public and private sector entities to further their R&D, technology commercialization, and economic development goals. A few such prominent collaborations include:

Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus Site Plan

Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus Site Plan

Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus in Knoxville provides a particularly good opportunity for Chinese companies seeking to locate R&D facilities in the US. As the southeast region’s only research park affiliated with both a major research university and a national research laboratory, it provides a one-stop base for conveniently accessing a wide range of world-class R&D and technology commercialization capabilities in a beautiful and low-cost business environment. The Campus supports world-class, interdisciplinary research in computational sciences; climate and environment; advanced materials; biomedical sciences; and renewable energy. Through the Campus’ affiliation with ORNL and UT, companies that become tenants of Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus gain unparalleled access to an array of research tools and scholars for solving the companies’ most difficult R&D challenges. This includes tenant access to some of the world’s fastest supercomputers as well as the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials – one of the most powerful research facilities in the world.

Middle and West Tennessee also have a variety of tech commercialization programs.

In Middle Tennessee, the Vanderbilt University Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization works with faculty researchers to license inventions to companies in target sectors including bioinformatics, energy, healthcare IT, medical devices, robotics, thin films and nanomaterials, and many others.

In West Tennessee, the Office of Technology Transfer at the FedEx Institute of Technology in the University of Memphis licenses intellectual property to local companies, focusing on medical devices, energy, intelligent systems, and translational informatics. In addition, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis – named the number one children’s cancer hospital in the US in the 2010-11 US News & World Report rankings – partners with companies through its Office of Technology Licensing to commercialize groundbreaking new inventions in the areas of antibodies, biologics, diagnostics, drugs, drug discovery and development tools, software, vaccines, and more.

These are only a few of the tech commercialization and R&D programs across Tennessee. Many of the programs have an emphasis on regional economic development and give preference in licensing to local or US companies. Opportunities for Chinese companies to participate in such technology commercialization programs still exist however if the Chinese companies partner with a US or Tennessee company.

Recruitment of Chinese companies to establish R&D facilities in Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus and participate in Tennessee tech commercialization programs can also benefit local Tennessee companies. Partnerships between Chinese and Tennessee companies to establish R&D facilities and jointly commercialize new technologies could enhance Tennessee companies’ understanding of and readiness to enter the huge China market. As with any partnerships, having clear intellectual property protections and agreements in place is crucial to long-term success, as is close adherence with export controls laws – important topics that will be discussed in later posts.


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