Mention "town and gown" partnerships to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga business professor Dr. Thomas Lyons, and he lights up.
Lyons, UTC's new Clarence E. Harris Chair of Excellence in Entrepreneurship, is an accomplished business scholar and researcher. But his passion is plugging academic resources into the existing business grid.
"That's the nutshell of my career," Dr. Lyons says. "I tend to be an applied researcher — taking the theories and concepts in the academic world and applying them in the real world."
In addition to teaching graduate-level courses, Lyons will be part of the leadership team of the university's new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (or CIE). The CIE is slated to open a physical presence in the James R. Mapp Building, which is part of Chattanooga's downtown Innovation District. The Mapp Building property was given to UTC by the state of Tennessee.
Lyons, who has been on the job at UTC for only a few weeks, said he was drawn to Chattanooga because of its growing reputation as a hub for business innovation.
"Everything I've been hearing for awhile is that Chattanooga is a great place for entrepreneurship," Lyons says. "The ecosystem is exceptionally large and well formed. Collaboration is part of the DNA of the community. Those are all things that I thought would be terrific from my standpoint."
Lyons earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He did his undergraduate work at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and received a master's degree from Loyola University in Chicago. His academic specialties are entrepreneurship skills measurement, community economic development and social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship involves taking the mindset, tools and processes of business owners and applying them to a social and or environmental mission, Lyons says. In short: It's using markets to solve social problems. One example is Newman's Own, a Connecticut food company started by co-founded by the late actor Paul Newman that gives away all of its after tax profits to charity, Lyons said.
Lyons, 66, and his wife Debra Dubow, recently moved to Chattanooga from East Lansing, Michigan, where Lyons was on staff at Michigan State University. At Michigan State, Lyons was the director of the MSU Product Center, which promoted entrepreneurship in the food and beverage industries.
"A big part of what we did was to go out into the community and engage with food growers and food processors — all the people who were part of the value chain for food," he says.
For people in the food business, the MSU Product Center provided support from "concept to product innovation," he said.
Lyons said he hopes UTC will similarly engage with local business clusters. Chattanooga has obvious synergies in the transportation and tourism sectors. Volkswagen has become a magnet for auto part manufacturers and the city's $1 billion a year tourism industry is part of the business backbone of the city.
An entrepreneur himself, Lyons has a business interest in a software company whose main innovation is a system for identifying entrepreneurial skills in individuals and teams. Academia is still fighting the perception that great business innovators are born, not made, Lyons said.
"Research has debunked that theory," he says. "Most of what entrepreneurs do has come from things that they have learned and their environment."
UTC's Gary W. Rollins College of Business includes a department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship. Lyons says the university hopes to attract more students into the entrepreneurship track by developing a gateway general education course to introduce students to the principles of entrepreneurship.
He said some students are not inclined to pursue the entrepreneurship curriculum because they fear the end result is that they have to start a company — a risk they may be unwilling to take. Lyons said students will discover that you can be an entrepreneur and innovator inside an existing venture.
"Entrepreneurial skills are skills almost anybody can use," he said. "They are skills of leadership."
He said UTC's goal should be to, "Create an environment in which young entrepreneurs can have their confidence built, and gain some skills they need to be successful."