Oak Ridge National Laboratory opening one-of-a-kind office in Chattanooga

Oak Ridge National Laboratory opening one-of-a-kind office in Chattanooga

October 20th, 2016 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Professionals from Chattanooga recently toured ORNL's Spallation Neutron Source facility in Oak Ridge.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

The once-secret city of Oak Ridge, home to the Department of Energy's largest national laboratory, is strengthening its link with Chattanooga with the opening today of an office at EPB.

The Oak Ridge National Lab office will go downtown in the city's Innovation District, and business people and officials hope it will go a long way to unlocking collaboration and technology transfer.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said he has long advocated connecting ORNL's state-of-the-art technology assets with Chattanooga's entrepreneurial strength.

The opening of the office, which will be the only one of its kind in Tennessee, will mark "a pivotal day for the Chattanooga area," said Fleischmann, who led the ORNL effort.

Oak Ridge's nickname of "The Secret City" comes from its establishment in 1942 as a production site for the Manhattan Project — the operation that developed the atomic bomb.

While Oak Ridge's research facilities and the Scenic City are only about 90 miles away, Chattanooga leaders have tried for at least the last couple of decades to attract more leading-edge technology out of ORNL and leverage it into business. Results have been mixed in the past, officials have said.

Tim Spires, who heads the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Association of Manufacturers, said everybody has been busy dealing with economic changes in recent years.

"They've been hesitant to go out and try something new," he said. "Things are changing now. It's definitely the advanced manufacturing sector that's growing, and [the office] will help that."

He sees a lot of chances for local companies to receive technical support from the ORNL office.

"It will open up opportunities for companies who have new product lines and who need that type of support," Spires said. "It will open up entrepreneurship opportunities. Some of that technology can be transferred out."

Randy Boyd, Tennessee's commissioner of economic and community development, said the state is trying to bring the cutting-edge work at ORNL to businesses.

"We're working not just in Chattanooga but across the state to connect ORNL to business," he said. He cited one program in which a company can receive up to $250,000 to commercialize some of the technology at the lab.

"That's really exciting," he said about the opening of the Chattanooga office, which will include the naming of its manager today.

ORNL already is working with Chattanooga's EPB in areas such as the smart grid, sensor technology, and electric grid integration and modernization.

Fleischmann has said he met frequently with officials from EPB, the city and Hamilton County, and Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, to create the new partnership with ORNL. It was after he led visits between both cities that the goal of a Chattanooga ORNL office started to become a reality.

Plans are for the ORNL office to work with companies in the Innovation District, a 140-acre parcel in the central city where entrepreneurs, tech-based startups and business incubators can mesh and create a so-called "innovation ecosystem."

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.