Opinion: Chattanooga dreams big — rightly — to become a new tech hub

Staff photo by Mike Pare / U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, California, left, tours the Chattanooga Novonix plant with Daniel Deas, president of the company's anode materials division, on Monday. Khanna was in the city at the invitation of Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly.

As Hamilton County and the nation pull further and further away from the grimmest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's good to begin seeing progress on other fronts: The county's 27-voting-member regional health council held its first meeting in 30 months Monday, Brainerd High School Principal Crystal Sorrells reconstructed how the school's leadership helped students improve graduation and attendance rates to get off Tennessee's "priority schools" worst-performance list, and a Chattanooga youth violence panel formed and met this week.

This is not small stuff!

And somehow all that news nudged its way onto the pages of the Chattanooga Times Free Press as our business reporters were covering a visit from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, California -- in Chattanooga by invitation of Mayor Tim Kelly, who hopes to win some big bucks for the city to become one of the nation's planned 20 new innovation hubs.

This would be enormous stuff.

Khanna is a high-powered Silicon Valley congressman who helped shepherd the July-passed Chips and Science Act signed in August by President Joe Biden to channel more than $52 billion into researching semiconductors and other scientific research -- all with the primary aim of countering China's near monopoly on computer chips and other important manufacturing and technology components.

"We're so dependent on China," Khanna said on Monday as he toured Chattanooga's Novonix battery materials plant. "I don't think the ordinary American realizes the vulnerability."

The new law (which Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty supported but the rest of Tennessee's Republicans in federal offices voted against despite all the GOP chest beating about China) will help the United States regain equilibrium.

"It's a colossal failure of policy of the last 30 years that we're dependent on China," Khanna said, citing China's domination in exporting battery materials. "What [Novonix] is doing is the first concrete steps to have us self-reliant on graphite."

Novonix, headquartered in Australia, is investing $160 million and eventually plans to employ 300 workers at its new facility in the former Alstom turbine-manufacturing plant on Riverfront Parkway. The Chattanooga plant's president said Novonix also is looking at building another plant, possibly also in Chattanooga, that would employ 1,000 workers.

But it wasn't just batteries that brought Khanna here.

Kelly made sure Khanna, one of the key authors of the Chips Act, also toured EPB and its Gig City operation, as well as our city's highly robotic Volkswagen auto assembly plant.

Khanna came away saying "Chattanooga regionally could be a big contender" for the Chip Act's new round of federal funding -- $10 billion for 20 new hubs around the country-- made available to help disperse where new research and innovation is conducted in America. Since 2005, over 90% of innovation growth occurred in just five cities: Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and San Diego.

"We're going to aggressively pursue this," Kelly said. "The precursors need to be there for success, and I think with what we have developed here at EPB and where we sit between the research facilities at Oak Ridge and Huntsville, Alabama, we already have some tremendous research capability."

What does this have to do with our other big news -- the youth violence group, the health panel and Brainerd High's rising momentum?

Everything. Youth and students need promise. New jobs need workers. Ideas fuel investment. And investment grows a stronger, healthier population.

Novonix, we should note, is partnering with our school system's Future Ready Institutes through a program at Lookout Valley Middle High School.

We should note, too, that Novonix's Anode Materials President Daniel Deas grew up in East Ridge and played baseball at Chattanooga State before going into the military. And Novonix's director of anode technologies, Harrison Kreafle, grew up in North Georgia and went to Georgia Tech before joining our Novonix.

"These are homegrown engineers who are taking the research that has been done ... around the world to help make Chattanooga the center of the future of the synthetic graphite industry," Tennessee's former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in February said as he introduced Deas as a speaker for an Engineers Week luncheon here.

If anyone thinks we can't do this -- can't think this big or grow such promise -- they should think again. We can.