MARTIN, Tenn. — Partnerships are important to Dr. David Millhorn. The University of Tennessee executive vice president highlighted key partnerships that are promoting economic development in Tennessee as keynote speaker for the “Innovating for Profit: Building Rural Businesses from the Ground Up” symposium held Wednesday in UT Martin’s Boling University Center.
The UT Martin College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, The Mid-South School of Advanced Agricultural Lending, the Horace and Sara Dunagan Chair of Excellence in Banking and the Gill Parker Chair of Excellence in Agriculture, both at UT Martin, and the NextFarm Agricultural Innovation Accelerator, sponsored the symposium.
In addition to Millhorn’s presentation, the symposium also featured a panel discussion of regional agriculture-based business leaders speaking on building businesses from the ground up. Participating in the panel were Jimmy Tosh of Tosh Farms, Kelley Powers of Final Flight and Powers Farms, Chuck Doss of INCO Irrigation Systems, M.J. Anderson of The Andersons, Inc., and Neil Mylet of LoadOut Technologies.
Millhorn, who also serves as president of the UT Research Foundation, began his comments by noting UT’s three-part mission to educate, discover and connect, saying the university is expected to do all three very well “in addition to running a first-class sports program,” which drew some audience laughter. “So it’s a very complex organization, much more complex I would think than running a Fortune 500 company. … ”
The university includes campuses at Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin, the Health Science Center in Memphis, and the Space Institute at Tullahoma. UT also includes two statewide institutes – the Institute of Agriculture and the Institute for Public Service. Those associated with UT include approximately 50,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students statewide, 12,000 employees statewide, including about 4,000 faculty, and an annual budget that exceeds $2 billion. “Probably, your lawyer, your doctor, your dentist are UT graduates,” he said.
“Most importantly, we’re fully committed to the people of the state of Tennessee. …” Millhorn added. “We want to be engaged with you and make sure that we’re doing the best we can.
“And we fully believe in partnerships. If you look at the university right now versus what it was 10, 12, 15 years ago, I would say the biggest difference are our partnerships. We have really tremendous partners because we can’t do it all. We need partners.”
Some of those partners include the Oak Ridge National Laboratory managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy, DuPont in UT’s biofuels research efforts, and the state of Tennessee in biofuels and the West Tennessee Solar Farm in Haywood County. He also included the UT Research Foundation, which is a not-for-profit organization that manages the university’s intellectual property, technology transfer and small startup companies being developed by the university.
UT’s partnerships and investments for Tennessee take on added significance in the state’s changing budget climate. He described the university’s budget in thirds: state appropriations, tuition, and grants and contracts. State appropriations and tuition are unrestricted and can be spent in different ways. Grants and contracts are restricted for specific uses and include overhead.
“But, as we grow, the budget has to grow, and we’re in a situation where the state appropriations (are) not going to grow … so we have to become innovators,” he said. “We have to ourselves bring in money.” Faculty members who pursue grant money bring in a large portion of restricted funds, he said.
Speaking to partnerships, “Our biggest partner and one that we have used to grow our research portfolio the most is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.”
In 2000, UT became laboratory manager for the DOE and sets annual goals and objectives for the lab. If those are met, the university receives a management fee. The lab brings in money through research grants and contracts, not appropriations. The workforce includes 900-1,000 Ph.Ds, several hundred students and an annual budget of $1.4 billion that has to be renewed each year through competition.
Millhorn noted that UT’s research program is small compared to other universities, so he has to leverage opportunities to grow the program, such as making joint appointments; there are more than 170 faculty members appointed to both UT and ORNL. Last year, these faculty members brought in more than $40 million in grants. The university doesn’t have to pay these joint appointments but benefits from the grant money that enhances UT research. “And I can tell you that having that lab next to us gives us a opportunity that very few universities have.”
Four UT buildings have been built at ORNL that house “joint institutes” in computer science, biological science and neutron science. He noted that UT campuses are the “biggest origin of our intellectual property” and added, “Our intellectual property portfolio continues to grow and grow with not only quantity but quality as well.”
Among other partnerships, Millhorn highlighted what he described as a “game changer” in the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus in Knoxville, which is devoted to private sector partnerships. All roads and utilities are complete, and construction on the Joint Institute of Advanced Materials has begun. Fifteen 150,000-square-foot buildings each will be built out over the next 10 years. “It (Cherokee Farm) will change the perception of the University of Tennessee by people that come and visit with us.”
The UT Research Foundation is a private 501(c)(3) corporation for which Millhorn has served as president since January 2014. “Its major responsibility is to handle, protect our intellectual property, to transfer that intellectual property into value and to market that and look for people to license the intellectual property,” he said. “Or, in certain circumstances, we’ll start our own companies.”
The UTRF has offices in Memphis and Knoxville, with the Memphis office responsible for the Martin campus. In 2009, the UTRF was creating about 80 intellectual property discovery disclosures annually. “The last three years, we’ve doubled that,” he said, adding, “It’s a way we can create new revenue streams into the university.” The UTRF has also generated 87 patent applications and a business incubator full of small companies. “We’re here to serve you. We’re here to serve others and to make this really work.”
One of the companies created by the UTRF is Genera Energy in Vonore, a company that is now totally private. The company was created with a large state of Tennessee grant, but DuPont soon became a partner in a program to produce fuel from biomass. “We solved the technical problems of taking switchgrass, extracting the sugars, and converting those sugars into ethanol,” Millhorn said. “We can do that now rather efficiently. In fact, our whole university flex-fuel fleet runs on ethanol that we make.”
The first bio-refinery that uses cellulose is being completed in Iowa and will use technology developed in Vonore. “DuPont has moved 75 of their scientists there from Wilmington (Delaware). They are committed for the long run as are we.” He added, “Anything you can do with a barrel of crude oil, we can do with biomass. Anything.” He sees this technology bringing economic development opportunities to rural Tennessee communities.
Genera Energy has also spun off a company called TennEra, which uses the same biomass but not to produce fuel. Plastic bottles and paper are two products in development, and with a patent recently filed on the paper-production process, the potential exists to someday generate millions of dollars from producing these products.
“You know, there are some universities out there that generate $50 to $100 million off their IP (intellectual property). That’s a lot of money. We can do it. … And we’ll provide, I think, the state with revenue that will be extremely important.”
He also talked about the solar farm that was completed two years ago in Haywood County. Then Gov. Phil Bredesen wanted the farm built along the interstate so that people would see it, and an agreement is in place for TVA to purchase the power produced. A combination welcome-and-information center is being built at the site to show how solar energy is produced that will include an interactive play station for school groups to use.
“So what makes UT different from any other college in this state?” Millhorn asked the audience. “One is our mission. Our mission is towards the people. Two is graduate education. We graduate more people with advance degrees than anyone else, and this is an area that we’ve got to make even better.”
“The university is in fine shape. It’s doing really well. I think that the future is bright,” he added. “I think that it’s important that we have first-class partners and we be a first-class partner to the state.”
PHOTO CAPTION – Dr. David Millhorn, University of Tennessee executive vice president and president of the UT Research Foundation, was keynote speaker for the “Innovating for Profit: Building Rural Businesses from the Ground Up” symposium held Wednesday, Sept. 17, in UT Martin’s Boling University Center.