People, partnerships and place: UT's committed to drive the innovation economy | Opinion

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Volkswagen to spend $800M, launch new Tennessee facility

Volkswagen selected its Chattanooga manufacturing plant for the company’s first electric vehicle facility in North America

Michael Schwab – USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee, Nashville Tennessean

Tennessee is poised to become the next great hub of American innovation.

Home to one of the most prominent national labs, multiple top-tier research universities, a growing workforce and enviable geography, the Volunteer State is positioned to drive innovation that will change the world. 

At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, we are ready to help lead an economic transition that will bring more high-paying jobs and create opportunities for both individuals and communities.

We are proud to be a founding member of the Tennessee Business Forum, which connects leaders in many industries with government entities and public policymakers, bringing collaboration and focus to our shared mission.

UT is committed to this collaboration and investment in the forces that drive our innovation economy: people, partnerships and place. 

Talent fuels the economy

Innovation is made possible by the creativity and ingenuity of people at all levels. From high school graduates with on-the-job training to college graduates and advanced degree holders, industries need a skilled workforce that meets their needs. 

At UT, our booming enrollments are helping build that workforce. We are making our curriculum more flexible and designing new degree programs that allow students to master competencies essential to success in the innovation economy.

UT has helped establish a coalition of more than 40 Tennessee colleges and universities committed to advancing our economy and preparing graduates for the jobs of the future. Together, we will deliver on our state’s workforce needs and create more opportunities for all Tennesseans.

Universities and industries make ideal partners

The public and private sectors can solve some of the complex challenges facing industry and society at large.

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To maximize our impact, UT is focusing on innovation platforms that flex our strengths as an institution and create economic opportunities for our state. 

We have partnerships with global leaders like Eastman Chemical, Lockheed Martin, AT&T and Volkswagen, which built its first North American Innovation Hub at UT’s Research Park at Cherokee Farm. Through our partnership with Techstars and the programs of UT’s Spark Innovation Center, we are growing new high-tech ventures and supporting talented Tennessee entrepreneurs.

Proximity encourages collaboration

Place can be a powerful convener — and Tennessee has a lot to offer. 

Industries looking at the Volunteer State find a world-class workforce, advanced infrastructure and committed partners. The federal government, meanwhile, sees the value in investing in  new hubs for research and development in the country’s heartland.

Tennessee has many opportunities for innovation in the mobility sector, building on our long-standing strengths in automotive manufacturing and requiring we continue to invest in strengthening our computing and artificial intelligence capabilities.

We’re working on making vehicles lighter and stronger and on innovations in computing that will bolster our transportation networks. Partners like UT Chattanooga, Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis are also working on mobility innovations. 

Together, we are creating an innovation ecosystem that spans from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains. 

Others are looking to Tennessee

Recently, I joined Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and outgoing Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Zacharia on a panel in Washington, D.C. 

Leaders from across the country joined us to hear how Tennessee is positioning itself for the economy of the future — and how research hubs that include national labs and universities can be a gravitational force for these evolving industries.

My takeaway from that panel discussion — and the dozens of conversations I’ve had with leaders in our state and beyond — is collaboration will always be the key to building the future we want.

We have all the pieces to be the next great American innovation hub — now let’s build it. 

Donde Plowman has served since 2019 as chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the state’s flagship land-grant research university. In that time, the university has seen record enrollment, student retention rates, alumni giving, state support and research expenditures.

The Tennessee Business Forum provides Tennessee-connected business leaders with the opportunity to engage with other executives from various industries to discuss a broad range of national legislative and regulatory issues. Learn more at