Unlike other major universities in the South, the University of Memphis has a big responsibility: As the Mid-South region’s only major research university (outside of the medical research going on over at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center), it’s kind of up to the U of M to bring the ideas of the future to the city of Memphis. That’s why the university, specifically the FedEx Institute of Technology, played host to a Commercial Drone Expo in April, and why it held a “Blockchain for Professionals” workshop earlier this month.
“Until about six months ago, there was no conversation about blockchain technology in Memphis at all,” says Jasbir Dhaliwal, chief innovation officer for the university and the executive director of the institute. “Our job is to watch these trends and technologies and be flexible and nimble enough to make sure that Memphis has the benefit of them.”
There is a lot going on at the institute, which first opened its high-tech, modern doors in 2003. It houses six interdisciplinary research innovation clusters. Its most successful is the Institute for Intelligent Systems, which, for less intelligent readers (and editors), means that it deals with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Its most high-profile is the Mobile Sensor Data 2 Knowledge (MD2K) cluster, which is the National Institutes of Health-funded collaboration between 12 universities across the country, including Cornell, UCLA and Northwestern. Memphis plays a leadership role in this initiative, which is developing innovative tools to make it easier to gather, analyze and interpret health data generated by mobile and wearable sensors. Other clusters cover cybersecurity, drones, big data and, in a big nod to its benefactor, biologistics. In fact, Dhaliwal points out, the University of Memphis is the first university to have a biologistics research cluster.
In addition to housing the research clusters, the FedEx Institute also operates the university’s Office of Technology Transfer, which licenses the intellectual property created on campus to local and national companies for commercialization. SweetBio, a medical device startup born at the University of Memphis, has developed a dissolvable membrane, derived from honey, that can be used to promote healing after oral surgeries.The company participated in Memphis’ high-profile ZeroTo510 accelerator and has raised $1.15M in funding so far.
Dhaliwal says he’s impressed by Memphis’ startup ecosystem and the infrastructure built around the city’s various incubators and accelerator programs, but he admits that more needs to be done to foster innovation.
“It reminds me a lot of 1995, when the internet was coming,” he says. “We have so many great technologies but we don’t have enough folks who understand them here. We want to be home-grown, but we need more technology companies and more entrepreneurs to move to Memphis.”
One way to make that happen, he says, is for the state of Tennessee to start putting more support (i.e. funding) behind graduate education. “If we had 1,000 more PhD students working on innovation in Memphis, it would completely change the landscape in terms of high-tech entrepreneurship and could put us in the national landscape,” he says.
Dhaliwal says FedEx is taking the lead in having that conversation with state leaders on attracting more graduate students to the world-class research facility. More companies should follow FedEx’s lead, he says, when it comes to fostering innovation in their cities.
“To create a more sophisticated ecosystem, that’s what we need,” he says. “That way we can attract some of the best technology innovators.”
To aid in these goals, Dhaliwal says the institute is focusing on making each of the research innovation clusters as high-profile and as successful as its first two and also making sure the university is producing graduates that area companies want to hire—or better yet, grads who want to start up in the city.
“By and large, the demand for these people in the Memphis area is so strong that many of them are already working for local companies before they finish the program,” he says.
That goes back to what he said about being flexible and nimble. For example, the graduate school, which is housed at the institute, recently launched five new programs in Big Data.
A final goal is getting the word out about what’s going on behind those modern, high-tech doors. Dhaliwal says the university has a strong national reputation. “If you go to Silicon Valley, they’ll know who we are and what we’re good at,” he says. “But we can do a much better job getting the word out locally and regionally.”