The People in the Room: April 2, 2020

By Jim Campbell, ETEC’s First President | April 2, 2020 |

At ETEC’s March Board meeting last Friday, Thomas Zacharia, director of ORNL, representing UT-Battelle, and UCOR chief of staff Joe Aylor, also representing Amentum, told us about several investments their companies are making to improve our community. They are important investments in economic development and education.

The fact is, we could have spent the entire meeting talking about ways the DOE contracting community works with different organizations around East Tennessee to raise the bar for us all. CNS has been a huge help in developing a training/event center next to the new American Museum of Science and Energy. Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ classroom makeovers are major events in schools.

It’s not just big companies either: Bonnie Carroll’s work with improving literacy, Harry Boston’s advocacy for public television, Dan Hurst’s work with KARM, Cathy Toth’s work for improving public education are all great examples of how our members are giving back. This also includes people like Brad Spears who worked with the City of Oak Ridge to create a mountain biking center that is full of kids almost all of the time. Mentors for the Men of Tomorrow group come from almost every company in Oak Ridge.

I risk leaving out too many people and too many good works if I go on.

Corporately, it hasn’t always been this way. Pete Craven, one of the co-founders of ETEC, used to tell stories about Union Carbide, the original operator of the Oak Ridge complex for the Atomic Energy Agency. The company’s contribution to economic development, he said, was buying six Buicks every year from Lester Fox, a long-time car dealer here. They also handed out tons of taffy at the Oak Ridge Christmas parade… (some of which still surfaces from time to time).

Martin Marietta, later Lockheed Martin, changed that when it took over for Carbide in 1984. They built Commerce Park, conceived (with a whole bunch of partners) the idea of reindustrialization at the K-25 Site, set up a business incubator for technology transfer, and invested heavily in Technology 2020. Schools, health care, the arts, and non-profits all benefited from their giving programs.

Even though the DOE contracting structure in Oak Ridge changed entirely in the late 1990s, the succeeding organizations continued to invest in making this part of the world better.

An important part of all this is making sure our community is investment-worthy, and not just for the Department of Energy and its contractors. Are we creating a culture that encourages the startup companies enrolled in Innovation Crossroads to locate in East Tennessee after their tenure at ORNL? Are we open to new ideas, diversity, and new people in leadership roles?

For whatever reason, right now there are a number of opportunities to grow East Tennessee’s innovation economy. Kairos Power, a young company with tremendous growth potential, is moving into Oak Ridge, and there are additional examples throughout the region. Do we have the infrastructure and the workforce to continue to grow? The TechStars report released back in January provided a great roadmap for the future. We need to work together to implement it.

Investments, like we are seeing from the DOE contracting community over the last 40 years clearly, are making a difference. They are transforming the East Tennessee economy, and its culture. Those of us who have been around for a while can see it happening.

We want to thank the current contractors for their generosity and leadership. They are making East Tennessee investment-worthy and enabling the next generation to grow in East Tennessee.

There is always more to be done. Our promise is that ETEC will be here to encourage companies to invest, learn, and actively participate in order to make this region a thriving innovation economy.