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FedEx Institute takes research and development to new heights

Initiative revives floundering neighborhoods

Kemmons Wilson family makes significant gift to U of M

Profile: Dean Richard Sweigard

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U of M seeks nominations for Honorary Degree

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Ten years later: FedEx Institute takes research and economic development to new heights

By Greg Russell 

University of Memphis psychology professor Dr. Art Graesser was working in rather cramped research space in early 2000 when he heard news that FedEx Corp. and its founder and CEO Fred Smith had decided to collaborate with the University on the construction of a state-of-the-art research center on campus — the FedEx Institute of Technology.

“It was tremendously exciting news,” says Graesser, whose Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS) has become world renowned for its work in artificial tutoring systems. “Memphis always needed a forum for collaborations among University researchers developing cutting-edge technology, the business sector facilitating technology transfer, political leaders and active members of the community. The Institute fit that vision perfectly ­ — it is a model for higher education of the future.”

Graesser says the Institute provided a central location for nearly 100 IIS researchers from more than 10 campus departments to comfortably conduct interdisciplinary research on dozens of funded projects. “The number of research grants has dramatically increased from the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Education Sciences, the Department of Defense and research foundations since we got this building,” he says.

The facility, completed in 2003, is a $23 million collaboration between the University and FedEx and is housed in a 110,000-square-foot building that includes software research labs, technology transfer offices, classrooms and faculty offices.

Coaches explained the ins and outs of college football to a female audience who were seeking more insight into the game during the “The FedEx Institute of Technology ratcheted up technology transfer with the creation of a Technology Transfer Office that has licensed 10 technologies, received 10 issued U.S. patents, disclosed more than 70 new inventions and filed 50 patent applications from across campus under the direction of Director Kevin Boggs.
The FedEx Institute of Technology ratcheted up technology transfer with the creation of a Technology Transfer Office that has licensed 10 technologies, received 10 issued U.S. patents, disclosed more than 70 new inventions and filed 50 patent applications from across campus under the direction of Director Kevin Boggs.

“The physical space is impressive, but more importantly, the FedEx Institute of Technology serves as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, the place where business, education and innovation intersect,” says University of Memphis Provost David Rudd.

The Institute is also home to a state-of-the-art United Nations-type amphitheater, with language translation and technology capabilities to host international meetings for businesses.

Besides Graesser’s artificial intelligence work, a large number of other new technologies have emanated from research in the FedEx Institute. In 2008, the U of M ratcheted up a robust technology transfer office and named its first director, Kevin Boggs. Under his direction, the University has licensed 10 technologies, received 10 issued U.S. patents, disclosed more than 70 new inventions and filed 50 patent applications from across campus. Four of the licenses have led to Memphis-based startups including one that focuses on water-quality testing that has a Gatorade-type income return potential and could generate millions of dollars. Boggs expects the number of patents to dramatically increase as more professors focus on both the academic and commercial side of their research.

“U of M administrators realized that with our growing research stature that includes more and more inventions, we needed an office and a full-time person who would evaluate the invention on the front end, protect the intellectual property when appropriate, market them to companies who are likely to want them, sign licenses that make sense for both sides and then monitor the license so that the product comes to market,” Boggs says.

“Our office also tries to nurture relations with local entrepreneurs because a lot of times, there is no established company that is interested in that technology. The only way to get someone interested is with a start-up. That start-up perfects the product. The big payoff for all comes when the startup is able to sell the invention to a major corporation.”

Most recently, the U of M added a new program, a startup incubator called the Crews Ventures Lab (CVL) that will provide a vibrant environment for researchers and entrepreneurs to collaborate on projects with real-world applications.

Around the world, local economic development has been shown to depend on the success of technology entrepreneurs. The CVL will support local economic development by supporting entrepreneurial faculty and students at the U of M to “take the next step” in realizing their dreams of starting a company.

“The lab will allow our fledgling companies to grow in a supportive environment, but it will also allow them to do so in a location where we can easily demonstrate to potential investors the world-class facilities just down the street from where these ideas were hatched,” says Dr. Gary Emmert, U of M Dunavant Professor of Chemistry.  

“In short, the partnership with FedEx Corp. has been critical to fund, identify, protect and license valuable technology while researching best startup practices and working with the local corporate community to develop talented, ambitious entrepreneurs, such as those who will move into the Crews Ventures Lab,” says Rudd.

The FedEx Institute has also allowed the Memphis Research Consortium — a driving force in economic development in the region — to thrive. The U of M partners with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the major medical device companies in the area to collaborate on research and resulting applications to create jobs.

FedEx Institute of Technology milestones and highlights:

FedEx Institute Externally Funded Researchers

  • Affiliated researchers have submitted grant applications totaling $30 million
  • During the 2012 fiscal year, external research funding approximated $14 million

Crews Ventures Lab

  • Pre-incubator space for University of Memphis students’ and faculty’s earliest start-ups — including mentors and advisers
  • Business incubators near research universities help recruit and retain talent and support the transition of promising technologies to market
  • Potential source of jobs for graduating chemists, engineers and business students
  • Nearly $1.9 million in private commitments have been secured
  • Estimated completion by late fall 2013
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