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Donde Plowman on Competing in the Next Economy

Dr. Donde Plowman


University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Members of the Council on Competitiveness Board and Executive Committee, and Commissioners and Advisors from the National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers came together this summer at Gallup World Headquarters to take stock of the Council’s work and explore the challenges and opportunities driving Phase 2 of the National Commission’s work.

During the meeting, Chancellor Donde Plowman from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, described how place-based innovation is changing the economic landscape in Tennessee by bringing together academic institutions, industry leaders, and state and federal agencies to solve problems and bring new technologies to the marketplace.

Building on Tennessee’s global reputation in materials and manufacturing, UT has been making strategic investments to expand its expertise and R&D capacity, she said. The university recently launched its Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, committed to faculty cluster hiring initiatives, and invested in cutting-edge R&D facilities. That’s led to more partnerships with industry, government, and other colleges and universities.

UT and Volkswagen have long enjoyed a productive partnership, beginning in 2011 when the automaker opened its Chattanooga assembly plant. It grew into a formal Master Research Agreement in 2018 and culminated in the launch of the company’s first North American Innovation Hub at the Knoxville-based UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm in 2020. Together, UT and Volkswagen are working on technologies that are transforming the automotive industry, including making vehicles that are lighter, batteries that last longer, and interior materials that are more sustainable.

UT has longstanding partnerships with other innovation industry leaders like the Eastman Chemical Company, who opened their Eastman Innovation Center on the university’s campus in 2022. The co-location of industry and university R&D capabilities on the UT campus has also yielded new collaborations among UT’s industry partners, including high-tech start-ups participating in the institution’s incubator and accelerator programs.  Eastman’s big ideas for renewables and sustainable materials, for example, have sparked collaborations among a number of industry partners. Through the university’s partnership support and activation model, dedicated UT teams bring numerous companies together to explore shared interests, solve challenging technical problems, and generate new jobs and economic opportunity.

These are the kind of spontaneous ideas and collaborations that take place when innovation-minded researchers from different organizations, disciplines and fields work side-by-side in one place, Plowman said.

“As we think about the future of work, telecommuting could make innovation more difficult. If the work force is isolated from one another, working from home, innovation won’t happen. We need to pull together people, partnerships, and place.” – Dr. Donde Plowman, Chancellor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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