With substantial budget cuts looming, UTC officials are wondering where they're going to find the money to save the college from reducing staff, cutting classes and limiting enrollment.
The answer, they say, may be in peddling the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's academic services outside the classroom.
"Academics can bring in some of its (financial) needs by using their expertise," said UTC Chancellor Roger Brown. "That's money we won't have to ask for from the state."
To test the idea, the university plans for the first time to commercialize its SimCenter and market the center's research services in computational engineering.
"The financial need is obvious," said John Schaerer, president of the SimCenter's nonprofit arm, SimCenter Enterprises. "To keep (the SimCenter) on the cutting edge, we need this type of funding."
UTC is planning on cutting another 6 percent, or $2.8 million, from its budget this year. Since 2008, UTC has lost 13.9 percent of its state appropriations, a total of $8 million. The UT system overall will cut more than $110 million by 2012.
The most obvious partnerships for SimCenter Enterprises to pursue are with companies in the automotive or transportation industries, Dr. Schaerer said.
Computer simulation programs developed at the SimCenter have helped Chattanooga-based trucking company U.S. Xpress Enterprises test new aerodynamic trucking models, saving the company money associated with real-life equipment testing.
"They provide a terrific resource as far as the research capability," said Greg Thompson, a spokesman for U.S. Xpress. "You can look at a computerized model before you go in and build a prototype. It provides tremendous advantages for our business. The potential for fuel savings and efficiency is quite significant."
Dr. Schaerer said SimCenter researchers want to do the same type of simulation modeling with Volkswagen and other car companies. Forming these types of community partnerships was part of the original proposal to the University of Chattanooga Foundation to develop the SimCenter, he said.
"There are a lot of applications to the automotive industry," he said. "High-tech businesses like to cluster where first-class research and education programs exist. The SimCenter becomes a calling card."
Bringing in more than $3 million a year in grants and contracts, the SimCenter already is one of the few academic programs that pays its way at UTC, Dr. Brown said. The school provides about $1 million in support for the center each year.
"It is the most marketable set of skills we have," he said.
And university leaders will be watching performance of the SimCenter's new business model for applications across the campus. Other opportunities to monetize academics may be in nursing, physical therapy, business and engineering, Dr. Brown said.
* The SimCenter was formed in 2002.
* There are more than 20 faculty and staff.
* SimCenter Enterprises has an annual budget of $900,000.
* The center has earned $23.2 million in external grants and contracts since inception.
* There are 21 doctoral candidates and 14 master's degree candidates at the center.
ABOUT THE SIMCENTER
The SimCenter is the UTC national center for computational engineering. It creates computer simulation programs that can be used to solve industry problems. The center houses master's degree and doctoral programs in computational engineering.
Officials are toying with the idea of using faculty and students in the UTC physical therapy program to start a physical therapy clinic that would charge for services, similar to the speech pathology clinic run by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he said.
Community colleges long have had clinics that charge for services in dental hygiene and massage therapy.
Business faculty could be hired as consultants for local and national businesses, Dr. Brown said, and there also is an opportunity to market UTC as a hub for start-up business training.
The UTC Center for Entrepreneurial Growth rents space to young businesses and gets a percentage cut of their revenue if they grow, he said. The center is another avenue for potential growth, he said.
Jim Hall, a UT trustee from Chattanooga, said he supports the SimCenter selling what it does best, and he thinks it will draw positive attention to the community.
"There isn't a whole lot of difference between grant applications and marketing," he said. "I think their work can be very useful in the marketplace."
But the SimCenter's experience may not be a model that should be extended to other academic areas, he said.
"I think it has to be done on a case-by-case basis and look at the pros and cons and then make the decision," Mr. Hall said. "I don't think I would support a blanket application at this point."