A conversation with EPIC prize winner Spark Innovation Center:
OTT: Congratulations on receiving $50,000 as part of OTT’s EPIC prize! First, please tell us a little more about your company/who you are.
Spark Innovation Center: The Spark Innovation Center is located in the UT Research Park in Knoxville, Tennessee. Spark currently supports six of the region’s most promising energy-based startups, providing them with top quality laboratory space and a full suite of business support and mentoring. Our plans are to triple the size of Spark over the next two years.
OTT: Will you give us a brief description of your winning program plan?
Spark: Spark leadership has recruited cleantech startups from UT and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to become clients in the incubator. Spark clients have one-year leases at near commercial rates, renewable for one additional year. The UT Research Park is building additional space adjacent to the current Spark facility that will offer more Spark incubator space and commercial space for the current Spark clients to move into.
OTT: How has this program impacted your region/local community?
Spark: Our region has a growing reputation as a great place to start a tech company, particularly in the energy space, given the resources of the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. One of Spark’s goals is to help these startups stay and grow in Tennessee rather than relocating to one of the coasts in search of capital or strategic partners. The region is also a great place to live and grow a family with clean air and water, a reasonable cost of living, a prominent university and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
OTT: When it comes to lessons learned with building out your regional innovation ecosystem, what is one thing that has worked and one thing that has not?
Spark: The availability of wet lab space has been a HUGE asset in attracting and retaining tech startups. Startups often get started in lab space at universities or national labs, but when they are ready to step out, the availability of quality lab space, coupled with expert mentoring, is really a key ingredient to their continuing success.
One challenge we see is managing growth. We typically assign Spark clients to shared lab space, with each startup receiving about 300 sf. When these clients start to grow, however, finding them lab and office space while co-existing with university faculty and students is challenging. We are even considering leasing space off the Research Park campus at flex space to accommodate near-term needs while we built more Spark space at the Park.
OTT: What does it mean to be an accelerator/incubator during the coronavirus pandemic? What is one lesson learned from this virtual experience?
Spark: We’ve actually been blessed by the fact that the University kept its research labs open during the pandemic while taking extra care with daily health self-screenings, distancing, cleaning, and contact tracing. The Spark Center was able to remain open while other nearby institutions, including ORNL, were essentially shut down for a year or more. That said, the virtual meeting capabilities facilitated by the university greatly enhanced mentoring and collaborating even without face-to-face meetings.
OTT: How can we stay up to date on the latest news or events with your company?
Spark: You can sign up for our quarterly Research Park newsletter here: Newsletter signup
You can follow us on LinkedIn here: LinkedIn
Thank you Spark Innovation Center!
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