COOKEVILLE — Innovation. Entrepreneurship. Economic growth. Tennessee Tech showcased one of the most dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Southeast to economic and community leaders at this week’s Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit.
Tech President Phil Oldham shared stories of students from all disciplines who are thinking creatively, rapidly turning ideas into concept designs, prototypes and business plans.
“Our students are now creating value out of those ideas, truly making this a place where technology and entrepreneurs meet,” Oldham said. “We have all the pieces that fit your goals and ours.
“We have a three-pronged contribution,” he added. “We help lead the recruitment of new jobs that fit our talent pool and the needs of the region. We support existing businesses with the steady flow of graduates and our focus on helping them expand and become more efficient. We provide education with a purpose and are in the businesses of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Tech graduates more than 1,000 STEM students each year, 400-500 of those engineers. The university also is embarking on innovation in biotechnology, manufacturing, renewable energy, cybersecurity, water quality and access, STEM education, healthy community, agricultural food products and agritourism.
The Summit attracted more than 300 government, business, academic and community leaders from East and Middle Tennessee as well as North Alabama, Eastern Kentucky, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. Discussions and presentations focused on the vital role entrepreneurs provide in turning ideas and technologies into new business start-ups and the expansion of existing businesses.
“The history of the (Tennessee Valley) corridor has been geocentric on Oak Ridge and Huntsville. We, as well as our nation, are better for what has been accomplished,” said Oldham during his remarks Wednesday afternoon. “Tennessee Tech continues to supply a large percentage of engineers and staff in both areas and across the region.
“We are an important player, but we have not seen the full benefit of having a great talent pool,” Oldham continued. “We need to see an influx of technology-based businesses and build our own, so the Upper Cumberland fully can gain economically. We need to work with you to expand the Corridor’s geographic impact to benefit us all.”
Oldham said faculty and students have working to aid industrial recruitment and growth, job creation and entrepreneur development based on Tech’s areas specialties and strengths. He used examples of a $3.95 million cybersecurity grant from the National Science Foundation; a recent promotion of the university to a Doctoral Research University by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education; the work of Tech’s iCube innovation; and, competitions such as Eagle Works, which ensures students get the mentors, testing, and critique needed to produce viable products.
Oldham cited the success of one such student — Jacqueline Schulz, an iCube student worker and a senior in the Winston-Hester School of Nursing.
In an interdisciplinary class developed by a couple of faculty, Shulz teamed up with another nursing student and two chemical engineering students to develop a radiation shielding sterile drape for the protection of patients during interventional radiology procedures, including heart catheters and CT scan-assisted central line placements.
“It was an opportunity to grow and put me outside my comfort zone and learn from other people,” said Shulz. “It was freeing to learn to be creative and to realize I do have good ideas. It definitely helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself.”
It’s students like Shulz and Tennessee Tech’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship that Oldham reasons the university is ready to play a full role in the economic community.
“Tennessee Tech and the Tennessee Valley Corridor should come together, here and now,” said Oldham. “You can do extremely competitive work in a high tech arena here in the Upper Cumberland.”
Congressman Diane Black, State Sen. Paul Bailey, State Rep. Ryan Williams, Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton and Putnam County Executive Randy Porter also spoke during Wednesday’s session.