Patents to Profits

A Tennessee Tech professor has found a way to make anti-lock braking systems safer for motorists -- but his discovery may never make it to the marketplace.

Because there's no effective statewide support system to turn innovations into marketable products, Tennessee Tech is leading Tennessee Board of Regents schools in a plan to build a bridge from innovation to marketability. The collaboration should make it easier for universities and federally managed laboratories to turn ideas into profitable ventures.

TTU is the lead institution for the project funded with a three-year, $579,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Partner organizations include several TBR universities, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Tennessee Biotechnology Association, TennesSeed and Cumberland Emerging Technologies.

"There are islands of discovery dotting the state -- isolated agencies competing for limited funds and ideas Ð trying to turn knowledge into profitable, usable products," said Tennessee Tech's College of Engineering Dean Glen Johnson, the project's principal investigator. "What we propose to do is connect the knowledge at universities and laboratories in the state with the development of new products and services that will create new jobs and economic development."

The project will be a two-year study program that will enable students, faculty and researchers gifted in biotechnical fields to study and experience starting a technology business and seeing it through to become an owner/operator. Students or researchers with undergraduate degrees and biotechnical innovations-- such as pharmaceutical research, genetic marker testing and equipment improvements or innovations -- are candidates for the program's first class.

According to Johnson, federal laboratories hold hundreds of patents that have yet to be tested for economic success and many more potentially patentable inventions exist in the labs of TBR universities with little likelihood of commercialization without this grant program.

He says the current lack of coordination and communication makes it extremely difficult for the state to reach a critical level of innovation.

"There is a prevailing influence in the state that workforce education should be training-based rather than innovation-based," he said. "Our proposed work will be a first step toward transforming current low-skill, assembly-only economic development into a self-sustaining way to create wealth through innovation."

Currie says the growth of wealth in the state can be exponential when companies are started based on innovative, new technologies.

"The Silicon Valley is an example of how promoting and supporting innovation can lead to growth and wealth for an entire area or state," he said. "This program can be the first step toward improving Tennessee's success in innovation and growth, something that can benefit every Tennessean.

Applications for the program will be accepted through April 2001 for the first classes to begin in Fall 2001. The classes may be taken for credit, or students not enrolled in a university may take them as non-credit classes, depending on the policy of the school.

Anyone interested in participating or mentoring in the program should call Ken Currie at 931-372-3362.