Compass Provides Insight on the Spark Innovation Center

Lighting a Spark

New innovation labs at the University of Tennessee Research Park will give hard-tech start-ups a place to grow.




After Marouane Salhi completed his doctorate in theoretical and computational physics at the University of Tennessee in 2016, he was invited to be a part of a technology accelerator program in Toronto.

Six 300-square-foot lab spaces are already full.

Upon completing the 10-week program aimed at helping nurture new companies working with quantum computing, Salhi said, he was offered an office and lab space at the University of Toronto to continue his work.

“I didn’t take it,” he said. “I figured that Knoxville is a much better place to start this company.”

Now Salhi’s start-up, Qubit Engineering, will be one of the first tenants to move into the Spark Innovation Center, a new program officially launching today at the University of Tennessee Research Park at Cherokee Farm.

The center will house six nascent technology companies in three lab spaces at the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM), the 140,000-square-foot science facility at the heart of the park off Alcoa Highway, just across the Tennessee River from the UT Knoxville campus.

“We’re going to take our whole network of entrepreneurial support and surround these companies with the support that they need in a lab environment, to hopefully keep more of them here,” said Tom Rogers, president and CEO of the Research Park.

Room to Ramp Up

Rogers came to the Research Park last year from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he was instrumental in launching Innovation Crossroads, a program that brings in early-stage tech start-ups to use ORNL facilities and resources for research and development. But after that two-year fellowship ends, Rogers said, many of those companies need a place to continue development as they come to market.

“They need to start commercializing their products to be able to stay alive,” he said.

That’s where Rogers saw potential in the state-of-the-art lab spaces at JIAM. With the blessing of UT, which owns the building and the park, he converted the three 600-square-foot labs into leasable spaces. Each company will pay $500 a month for half of one of the labs, with one-year leases that can be extended for a second year. All six spaces are already leased.

“If we don’t have a place like Spark, our concern was they go someplace else,” Rogers said. 

Spark tenants do not have to come out of the Innovation Crossroads program. The space is open to any company in what is known as the “hard tech” sector — those making and using tangible components, as opposed to software. Rogers said hard-tech companies typically take longer in the R&D phase than software companies, making incubator spaces like Spark vital.

One example is Eonix Energy, a company that is finishing up its two years in Innovation Crossroads and has already begun to move into a Spark lab space. Don DeRosa, Eonix’s founder and CEO, said the center is exactly what his company needs.

“What’s great about Spark, and something we haven’t encountered anywhere, is you’re really looking at a facility that is tailored to hard-tech companies,” said DeRosa, who founded his company in New York and was drawn to East Tennessee by Innovation Crossroads. “Normally when you want to get access to these tools, and very importantly the safety features of the facility, you need to partner with an academic lab or a national lab, and there are certain significant trade offs in this situation.”

Because it’s housed at the Research Park, Spark offers the benefits of access to ORNL and UT expertise and resources — including the possibility of enlisting graduate students — but in an explicitly entrepreneurial setting.

DeRosa said he had looked at other facilities that billed themselves as hard-tech spaces, and he wasn’t impressed. “Their version of hard tech was having a 3D printer in the corner,” he said.

Eonix needs more than a 3D printer. The company is developing new electrolytes for use in ultracapacitors, highly efficient energy-storage units that many think could replace traditional batteries in electric vehicles and other applications.

“We can’t really build batteries in a garage, legally or safely,” DeRosa said. “We require different resources.”

Salhi is in a similar situation. He founded Qubit Engineering in 2018 to develop commercial applications for quantum computing — the use of quantum physics phenomena like superposition and entanglement to process complex data more quickly than classical computing.

Specifically, Salhi has found a market in the wind energy sector. Qubit specializes in helping wind-farm developers lay out their turbines to maximize energy production, taking into account factors like topography, wind direction and the proximity of turbines to each other.

“Once you place your turbines, you cannot move them,” Salhi said. “So you’d better make a good guess.”

Besides the resources of the lab itself and the access to both UT and ORNL, Salhi said a major attraction of Spark is the presence of the other start-ups. He said they would all be able to benefit from each other’s experiences as they work to attract investors and customers.

“The space is very nice,” Salhi said. “You have the conference rooms, the support, the secretaries. You’re in a real environment.”

He said the idea of just leasing some vacant commercial or industrial building somewhere was not appealing: “What are you going to get out of that? Nobody’s going to know where you are, nobody’s going to come talk to you.”

Future Steps

The Research Park at Cherokee Farm was founded nearly a decade ago on property formerly used for UT’s dairy farm. Its goal is to attract private industry that will draw on UT researchers and resources.

UT President Randy Boyd, an entrepreneur by background himself, said in an emailed statement that the new center would further the park’s work.

“Start-up technology companies typically need a longer runway to success and profitability than other companies,” Boyd said. “The Spark Innovation Center is a solution to help those companies launch and soar.”

Rogers said he expects the program to be so successful that he is already looking for more space he can use for it.

“We haven’t even announced it yet, and we’re full,” he said. “We already have two expressions of interest from other companies.”

He also hopes that by the time the first cohort of Spark companies finishes, some of them will be ready to move to larger spaces that could be constructed on the park’s still abundant open property.

DeRosa, for one, said he would definitely consider it. Although his company has maintained a presence in his home state of New York, he is bullish on East Tennessee.

“Knoxville has a very underrated amount of tech talent,” he said. “You have Oak Ridge National Lab and also the University of Tennessee, a fantastic research institution, which I didn’t fully know before coming down here. So I definitely think it’s unfortunately a well-kept secret, but hopefully coming onto people’s radar a bit more.”


The Spark Starting Line-up

Besides Eonix Energy and Qubit Engineering, the other inaugural companies to join the Spark Innovation Center are:

·         American Nanotechnologies Inc., which is developing technology to isolate high-value semiconducting carbon nanotubes from raw sources which contain a mixture of metallic compounds.

·         Chem Chip, LLC, which produces working electrodes based upon carbon nanospike innovation developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

·         Neptune Fluid Flow Systems, which has developed a novel method for preparing thin films of soft material solution for cryo-TEM work, a new analytical tool of great interest to the scientific community.

·         Sky Nano, LLC, which produces high purity carbon nanotubes from ambient CO2 for use in multiple markets.

Founding partners in the innovation center include:

·         The UT Research Foundation, which will provide connections with startup companies licensing UT’s innovations, and advice and assistance with intellectual property matters;

·         The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which will provide connections to ORNL researchers interested in starting companies and to licensees interested in commercializing their technology locally; 

·         The UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM), which will provide quality laboratory space and opportunities for collaboration with UT and ORNL research staff;

·         The UT Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which will support client development of business models and sustainable business plans;

·         The UT College of Law Business Clinic, which will provide clients with legal advice in the formation of their businesses, managing their intellectual property, and negotiations with potential partners;

·         Three Roots Capital, which will provide insights into capital sources, the capital raising process, and potential direct access to a variety of capital sources; 

·         The UT Libraries, which will provide Spark clients with all the resources and expertise if offers, including access to market research tools and assistance; 

·         The Innov865 Alliance, which will help ensure that Spark clients have full access to all the startup services available in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem; and

·         The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, which will provide access to the State of Tennessee’s Energy Mentor network.