OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Chattanooga business and political leaders are talking with Oak Ridge National Laboratory officials about the lab occupying office space downtown as they eye more collaboration.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said an ORNL presence in Chattanooga could focus on issues such as cybersecurity for the country's power grid.
"Oak Ridge plays a major role in cybersecurity and national security," he said last week. He led a 50-person delegation of Chattanooga area business people and others to ORNL and the Y-12 National Security Complex seeking closer ties.
* What: Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the largest Department of Energy science and energy lab.
* Established: 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project
* Focus: Four major areas of science and technology - neutrons, computing, materials, nuclear
* Staff: 4,400 including scientists and engineers in more than 100 disciplines
* Budget: $1.4 billion
* Patents: 594 U.S. patents issued since 2004
Fleischmann also cited the potential of coupling the national lab's leading-edge science with the ultrafast Internet offered in Chattanooga by EPB.
An office could go in space within Chattanooga's Innovation District or in the small business incubator on the North Shore, officials said.
Darrell Akins, executive manager of the Tennessee Valley Corridor headquartered in Oak Ridge, said an ORNL office in Chattanooga would help local businesses and entities access information from the lab and spur collaboration.
"But if you're not [located close by], it's out of sight, out of mind," said Akins, who oversees the economic development entity that supports federal science and technology missions in the Tennessee Valley.
Kathryn Foster, who directs the small business incubator for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said she'd like to see more links between the companies in the center and ORNL, the U.S. Department of Energy lab just 90 miles from the city.
"Historically, it's too expensive for small businesses to work with Oak Ridge," she said, adding the state is providing funding to help companies work with the lab.
Having better links with ORNL would be "a game-changer," Foster said.
The Business Development Center off Cherokee Boulevard typically holds about 70 companies. It has graduated more than 500 companies over the last 10 years or so.
Chattanooga's newly formed Innovation District is a 140-acre area around office space at 11th and Market streets. The district, overseen by the city's Enterprise Center, is envisioned as holding a catalytic mix of start-up businesses, incubators, accelerators and other innovation economy generators and amenities.
Ken Hays, who heads the Enterprise Center, said there are "very preliminary discussions" related to ORNL because of the work being done in Chattanooga on EPB's Smart Grid, as well as 3-D printing.
"It's at a time when there's a national discussion about how to get innovation out of the lab," he said, adding it has been hard for small entrepreneurs to deal with ORNL.
Thom Mason, ORNL's director, told the Chattanooga group last week the lab is eager to build regional relationships and partner with businesses in the Chattanooga area.
He said a similar Fleischmann-led foray to ORNL two years ago led to work with EPB. Last year, ORNL said it planned to send engineering scholars to the city-owned utility. The goal was to help EPB figure out how to use all the data gathered from its Smart Grid to improve EPB's efficiency and reliability. By extension, the work could eventually upgrade the efficiency and service of all U.S. electric utilities.
"We'd like to find a few more of those connecting points," Mason said.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said the city understands Oak Ridge National Laboratory is "a valuable resource," and he cited the work that lab engineers are doing with EPB.
"We're always looking for ways to [partner]," he said.
For at least the past couple of decades, Chattanooga leaders including Fleischmann and his predecessor, Zach Wamp, have worked to fashion better connections between ORNL and Y-12. But getting leading-edge technology out of ORNL and leveraging it into business ventures and other moneymaking opportunities hasn't been easy, and the results are mixed at best, city leaders and others have said.
Richard L. Cartier, a Chattanooga inventor and businessman, said last week he reached out to ORNL seeking help on a new apparatus to sort ratchet wrench sockets. The idea was to use ORNL computers to simulate the product without having to build or rebuild it, he said.
Cartier said he received a return email from ORNL containing a response "without [the lab] ever asking questions."
Hays noted that the Brookings Institution has done work about making national labs stronger regional economic assets.
"That will take time and effort," he said.
Bruce Katz, vice president and founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, praised Chattanooga's efforts to build the Innovation District during a recent visit.
"I think what's happening here is really exciting," he said. "The culture of the place — it's large enough to be meaningful economically, but small enough to get your arms around it and collaborate."
Contact staff writer Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.