Development Projects Raise Questions About UT's Priorities

University officials promise profits from a series of high-stakes ventures

As $25 million of site preparation and infrastructure installation near completion on the University of Tennessee’s 200-acre Cherokee Farm just south of the Alcoa Highway bridge, one might suppose it’s paving the way for expansion of the university campus to meet a multiplicity of academic needs. But such is not the case.

While the one facility that’s firmly slated for construction is a $30 million Joint Institute for Advanced Materials that UT researchers will share with ORNL, none of the 16 other building sites laid out in a Cherokee master plan have been earmarked for use by the university.

To the contrary, a Cherokee Farm Development Corp. has been formed whose purpose will be to ground-lease the property to private companies with a research emphasis. A Los Angeles-based consulting firm has been retained for marketing and branding the property as a top-flight research park. And UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn informed trustees at their fall meeting that a national search is under way for “a real estate expert with the sole mission of developing Cherokee Farm.”

This real estate venture is just one of several initiatives that would push UT further into the commercial realm, primarily in the name of economic development and job creation in the state. With $70 million in funding provided by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007, a UT Biofuels Initiative is attempting to foster large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol extracted from prospectively large harvests of Tennessee-grown switchgrass. Beyond that, Millhorn is pushing ahead with hiring plans to strengthen capabilities for commercialization of UT research through licensing agreements that would augment the university’s revenues in an area where Millhorn said it presently lags behind most of its peers.

Since all of these endeavors come at a time when UT is generally in a retrenchment mode due to deep funding cuts, they raise questions about the university’s priorities. Even if economic development and job creation are worthy aspirations, these undertakings represent high-stakes extensions of the university’s mission. Space constraints permit only a brief look at each of them in turn.

Cherokee Farm: The excavated red clay that presently covers much of Cherokee Farm’s surface will soon give way to two landscaped green quadrangles delineated by interior streets and walkways. After lengthy delays, construction is due to start before year end on the first building to go up: The 144,000-square-foot JIAM facility that is scheduled for completion in 2014 and is intended to serve as an anchor for the entire development. Yet most of the $10 million to $15 million need to equip JIAM has yet to be obtained, and the climate for doing so is much less favorable than when UT got the $30 million combination of federal and state funding for the building in 2007. Another unknown is when TDOT will get around to constructing an interchange off Alcoa Highway that is needed to make Cherokee Farm easily accessible.

Despite the impediments, UT officials profess optimism that it will flourish as a research park in any longer run. “We are in early conversations with several prospective tenants, companies whose research is focused on areas that will draw upon and complement work being done at JIAM,” says Stacey Patterson, the university’s director of research partnerships under Millhorn.

UT Biofuels Initiative: It remains to be seen whether the $70 million that the state has invested in a pilot program to test the feasibility of commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol will prove to be a boon to the state’s economy or a boondoggle. About $40 million of the funding to Genera Energy, a subsidiary of the UT Research Foundation, went for construction of a pilot-scale refinery in Vonore that is being operated by DuPont Danisco and will produce about 250,000 gallons of ethanol this year. The balance went to Genera for procuring the feedstock (principally switchgrass) and establishing a supply chain for getting the bulky crop from farm to plant gate in processable form.

Genera contracted with more than 60 growers in a nine-county area for 51,000 acres of switchgrass plantings that are expected to yield a harvest of about 40,000 tons this year. That’s more than 10 times the amount needed to support annual operation of the pilot plant. But Genera’s president, Kelly Tiller, insists the roughly $7 million that’s been paid to growers under three-year contracts was need to test the “scalability” of ramping up to supply the operation of a much larger, 25-million gallon commercial refinery that’s envisioned.

When the three-year contracts were entered into, it was anticipated that they could be extended seamlessly to support such a plant, but now they are running out and DuPont has yet to announce plans for one. So the growers are in the dark as to what to do with the land they’ve devoted to growing switchgrass, whose other uses are quite limited.

Tiller voices confidence that the pilot has clearly proven the feasibility and viability of producing ethanol from switchgrass and will lead to the construction of not just one but multiple plants for doing so in Tennessee. She points to a congressionally set goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil by producing 15 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol nationally by 2022, and predicts that Genera will play a major role in fulfilling it as a supplier of feedstock.

Licensing Research: UT revenues from technology transfer licenses of $1.6 million a year lag far behind the $12 million average of 10 peer universities, Millhorn reported to trustees earlier this year. In analysis why, he said, “one of the most glaring facts to surface was the fewer number of individuals UT has working in its technology transfer efforts—individuals working with scientists and faculty in identifying IP [intellectual property], taking the IP through the patent process, and helping to market the IP.”

To rectify this shortfall, a “boots on the ground” strategy is increasing the size of the technology transfer staff at the UT Research Foundation in Knoxville to five positions, from the one that was in place. With these and other resources for fostering more business start-ups, Millhorn forecast that UTRF revenue “should increase to the $5-10 million level within the next several years” and “then can be allocated to the campuses for other projects.”

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