Aerial view of Cherokee farm on the Tennessee River bend

Planting Ideas, Growing Momentum

About 10 years ago, Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus existed only in concept—as a place where ideas would be planted so that innovation could bloom.

Cherokee Farm was imagined as a state-of-the-art science and technology research park focused on solving problems of national significance. The idea was the product of two things: (1) federal funding—secured by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and (2), the vision of David Millhorn, who jointly serves as University of Tennessee executive vice president and vice president for research.

Today, Cherokee Farm is a visible reality and one with momentum, Millhorn says.

“The first planned building is complete and in use, and privately funded construction has started on the second building, beginning the fulfillment of long-range plans for Cherokee Farm as a public-private partnership critical to research and discovery with economic impact,” Millhorn says.

Federal funding of $20 million was awarded in 2005 for the first major research center to be both jointly operated by UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and built on UT property—off the Oak Ridge reservation. A few years of process and site development later, construction of the new UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials began on 77 acres of rolling hills on the Tennessee River adjacent to UT Knoxville.

The site—named Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus in 2007—reached two milestones this year with the opening of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM) building and breaking ground on the highly anticipated first privately funded building.

Millhorn acknowledges that, when Cherokee Farm began, he lay awake at night thinking about finding companies to fill the 16 available parcels at the research park. Now, that number has fallen by two. Negotiations are ongoing, as are hopes that news of the next tenants will come more quickly with each announcement.

From left, Gov. Bill Haslam, James Tomiczek and Cliff Hawks
From left, Gov. Bill Haslam, James Tomiczek and Cliff Hawks

Researchers and scientists moved into the $56 million, 140,000-square-foot JIAM building in June after four of years construction—a lengthy span necessitated by exacting specifications for the structure that must house and eliminate vibrations to sensitive, state-of-the-art instruments. The building also features LEED-certified design that minimizes energy costs and maximizes natural light.

“Conducting research that advances knowledge and solves problems is a critical part of the mission of the University of Tennessee system,” Millhorn says. “At the same
time, it’s important to have partners in the private sector that are located here at Cherokee Farm. Most of the research infrastructure being developed at Cherokee Farm is to support this interface—which is to enhance research and, in doing so, create jobs.”

UT and ORNL jointly established JIAM in 2005 to research advanced materials-substances developed or modified to obtain superior performance or to achieve certain characteristics.

JIAM research is in three areas:

  • Advanced structural materials, including the study of composites, nuclear stresses on materials, strength of materials and research of materials at the nano scale.
  • Soft and hybrid materials, including research into fuel cells, solar cells, polymers and conversion of heat to electricity.
  • Functional materials and devices, including renewable energy, resistance-free power transmission and taking electronics beyond the silicon chip.

And, in a matter of months, JIAM gets a new neighbor down on the farm.

Civil and Environmental Consultants, or CEC, was celebrated as the rst private tenant on Cherokee Farm at a May groundbreaking with Gov. Bill Haslam and university leaders.

“Increasing the number of Tennesseans with postsecondary degrees or credentials and making Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high-quality jobs are our two top priorities,” Haslam says. “Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus gives us a tremendous boost in both arenas, and I applaud CEC for having the vision to recognize and embrace the opportunities this campus provides.”

Pittsburgh-based CEC is ranked among the Top 500 Design Firms and Top 200 Environmental Firms by Engineering News- Record. Among CEC’s 20 offices across the United States is one in Maryville, Tennessee, that will relocate to Cherokee Farm.

CEC will be the anchor tenant in a 45,000-square-foot building being developed by Knoxville-based Partners Development. Construction on the building, which includes flexible space for additional tenants, is expected to take about a year.

“One of the comments that I’ve heard is, ‘This is great. CEC is a catalyst for Cherokee Farm.’ And that’s true,” says CEC Vice President James Tomiczek. “However, I believe the opposite is true, as well. The way I see it, Cherokee Farm is a catalyst for CEC.”

The company focuses on civil engineering, environmental engineering and ecological sciences. CEC already hires UT interns and graduates, and its leaders chose Cherokee Farm for increased ties to its partners, including ORNL and the lab’s world-renown supercomputing capacity for complex data-intensive projects. In addition to JIAM on site, Cherokee Farm tenants have access to the expertise of all the other UT-ORNL joint institutes: in computation, neutron and biological sciences.

Partnerships established at Cherokee Farm could produce more than economic opportunity for the state and region—collaboration among partners could yield groundbreaking discoveries, too.

“It’s hard for anyone to say what the next new technology, what the next new development, the new challenge will be,” Tomiczek says. “But I believe there’s a very good chance it will happen here at Cherokee Farm.”

As president and CEO of Cherokee Farm Development Corp., Cliff Hawks’ job is to privately develop Cherokee Farm and prospect for corporate partners who can benefit from a close working relationship with the University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Hawks says CEC is a big win for Cherokee Farm and the state and that he looks forward to announcing additional tenants in the building now under construction and more buildings in the future.

“We’ve invested a lot of time building a solid foundation at Cherokee Farm,” Hawks says. “ is year, we’re building on that foundation and seizing the momentum that will carry us forward.”