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KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee’s MS/MBA program, which officials say has the potential to help create a high-tech business corridor akin to the “Silicon Valley,” has received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The funds will enhance the three-year-old program in which students design and market new products.

UT-s grant proposal was one of 222 considered and one of 24 funded by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation program. The money will be used to expand enrollment, enhance the entrepreneurial focus in the curriculum and further engage the public sector and scientific community to help with new businesses- success.

Ben Jordan, left, and Tony Spezia, right, invented the SAFELight, a flashing brake light that may help prevent rear-end collisions, while in the MS/MBA program at the University of Tennessee.

“The overriding goal of the MS/MBA program is to bring economic development to East Tennessee,- said program coordinator Arnold Lumsdaine, an associate professor in the College of Engineering Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering. “It equips engineering students with entrepreneurial skills and provides them with opportunities to launch their own companies or develop new technologies in existing ones to create and keep high-tech businesses in our region.”

Dr. Ken Kahn, MS/MBA program coordinator and associate professor of marketing and logistics for the College of Business Administration, also sees the program having a significant impact on the region and the state.

“The expected sustainable impact from the MS/MBA program on the East Tennessee economy is considerable. East Tennessee has tremendous technological resources, with a major research university and one of the nation-s largest national labs. We would like to see this translated into technology-based businesses that produce high-wage jobs and sustainable economic growth,- Kahn said.

Through the UT/Oak Ridge National Laboratory partnership and its science, business and engineering programs, the university is at the forefront of technology transfer. Thus, UT is a key factor in the regional efforts to boost economic development through new industry and professional, high-wage jobs.

The MS/MBA program is a 23-month course of study in which engineering graduates simultaneously earn master-s degrees in business administration and engineering. They work in teams to take a product from concept to prototype, overcoming both technological and business challenges.

“It is unlike any other program offered nationwide,” Lumsdaine said, adding that engineers and businesspeople don’t always understand each other’s roles in bringing quality products to market. While engineers are more concerned with how the products are made, businesspeople focus on product marketability.

The goal of the MS/MBA program is “to create the person who can see a new product from both of these perspectives,” he said.

A past team of MS/MBA students invented the SAFELight, a flashing brake light that may help prevent rear-end collisions.

“The MS/MBA program gave us a unique perspective of how business and engineering can fit together,” said Tony Spezia, one of the students who invented and patented the SAFELight. “For us, it promoted an entrepreneurial spirit. We liked the idea that when we exited the program and got our degrees we’d have something we could use to start up a business.”

Spezia and fellow SAFELight inventor Ben Jordan are now selling their product on the internet, through a TV shopping network and in one area automotive store.
Other student projects have included a lighted dental mirror, light-up tire rims, an adjustable golf bag that makes retrieving clubs easier, and a “wireless waiter” for restaurants to send orders from table to kitchen electronically.

The grant also will be used to initiate a unique summer entrepreneurship program for undergraduate engineering students. Students in that program will learn the entrepreneurial skills required for new product development. They will work alongside marketing students to examine product ideas for both technical and market feasibility.

Grant money also will be used to enhance the MS/MBA curriculum, as well as fund 10 $1,500 undergraduate scholarships and several graduate fellowships.

Further, grant funds will be used to increase private and public sector involvement in the program by starting a Product Development and Commercialization Forum where representatives of diverse companies will meet to share state-of-the-art concepts in product development. The inaugural meeting of the Forum will take place March 1-2 in Knoxville.

The MS/MBA program is a partnership between UT and more than 20 private and public local companies and entrepreneurs, including ORNL. Partners help by evaluating students’ projects, lending technical and business assistance, serving as guest lecturers and providing internships to students.

The MS/MBA initiative is under the direction of Kahn and Lumsdaine; Dr. Way Kuo, dean of engineering; Dr. Frank Speckhart, professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering; Dr. Rupy Sawhney, professor in the Department of Industrial and Information Engineering; and Dr. Billie J. Collier, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Amy Blakely, (865)974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu
Kim Cowart, (865) 974-0686, kcowart@utk.edu
Cindy Raines, (865) 974-5439, craines1@utk.edu