How Chattanooga Area Businesses Can Partner with Oak Ridge National Laboratory


For years, Chattanooga area leaders have recognized that partnering with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has tremendous potential to boost the local economy. After all, as the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy laboratory, ORNL uses its $1.5 billion annual budget to pursue a wide range of inquiries that have business and manufacturing applications.

In recent years, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, whose district includes both the Chattanooga area and Oak Ridge, has served as an important bridge and helped establish partnerships such as ORNL’s continuing work with EPB on a number of research projects related to Chattanooga’s Smart Grid and community-wide fiber optic network, which are among the most advanced in the nation.

Now, ORNL has announced a plan to broaden its interaction with Chattanooga area companies by designating Jeff Cornett as its local representative. Cornett’s official title is “Manager, Industrial and Economic Development,” and he brings a wealth of experience to the role, including nine years as the President and Chief Operating Officer of a private start-up enterprise as well as many years of experience in a variety of roles at ORNL.

We interviewed Cornett to give local companies what they need to know about interacting with ORNL.

Trend: What’s your process for helping companies figure out whether there may be an opportunity to partner with ORNL?

Jeff Cornett: The first thing I ask a business leader is, “What are the three things that keep you up at night?” Typically those are the big things we can address. For example, if a company is trying to solve how to make their vehicle much lighter or safer that could be a good project for ORNL, but we probably wouldn’t get involved if the goal is to redesign the shape of a fender.

Trend: What if a business leader answers “making payroll?” That causes insomnia for a lot of business owners.

Cornett: [Laughs]. No, we can’t help with that, at least not directly. Our rule of thumb is that the problem and the project have to be unique in order to be addressed by a national level asset like ORNL.

Trend: In that case, would you say that you work mostly with large companies?

Cornett: Not at all. ORNL works with companies of all sizes and across all industries. Even though ORNL’s research assets include some of the world’s foremost super computers, advanced materials research facilities, and clean energy research, in some cases the Department of Energy will fully fund a research project that a company helps define so long as we can publish the results afterward. When a company wants to keep research outcomes proprietary, they would need to co-fund or even fully-fund the effort. My goal is to work with companies to define projects that are a good fit for all involved.  

Trend: What about technology licensing?

Cornett: Absolutely, as I develop an understanding of what a company needs, I always keep in mind the possibility that a company could license one of ORNL’s existing technologies. We also maintain a searchable web site where companies can look up technologies that could be licensed for private development.

Trend: What do you want companies to know before they begin the process of partnering with ORNL?

Cornett: It’s going to take time. The key is to have patience in figuring out what a project looks like. Because ORNL is a national lab, we have to follow a rigorous procedure including writing a well-defined statement of work, etc. You need to get in early and get in deep to figure out what kind of project you want to do, and then just be patient. I can help companies with the process and maximize the chance of success, but there aren’t any short cuts.

Trend: What misconceptions would you like dispel about Oak Ridge?

Cornett: We don’t solve everybody’s problems. Some problems are a better fit for other research entities. ORNL can’t do anything that competes with the private sector. It’s also important to understand that DOE doesn’t fund every research project, but every project has to be paid for. I try to identify projects that might be accomplished and funded through an “Open Science” arrangement; however, many projects require co-funding or full-funding from private industry.

Trend: Do you help companies that would like to become a vendor to ORNL?

Cornett: Purchasing is not my department, but I encourage interested companies to go to ORNL’s procurement web site here for complete details.

Learn more about ORNL research partnerships, technology licensing and other business-oriented partnerships by contacting Jeff Cornett at [email protected].

Aerial photo of ORNL: Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy laboratory. ORNL’s diverse capabilites span a broad range of science and engineering disciplines, enabling the Laboratory to explore fundamental science challenges and to carry out the research needed to accelerate delivery of solutions to the marketplace.

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