East Tennessee State University launches ETSU Research Corporation


by Scott Roberston

East Tennessee State University President Dr. Brian Noland announced on Jan. 25 the launch of the ETSU Research Corporation. “With all of the many opportunities in our region to establish partnerships, innovate, and help drive prosperity, I feel strongly that ETSU should play an even greater role in this effort,” Noland said.  “As such, today I am happy to announce that we are repurposing the ETSU Research Foundation and launching the ETSU Research Corporation with David Golden as our CEO. The Research Corporation will have a greatly expanded role to connect, convene, and create across our campus and our region. It will be a dynamic and forward-thinking partner as we work to enrich the region and impact the world.” 

Noland added that an overarching goal of the corporation is to enrich a culture of research on campus and support the faculty by creating partnership opportunities and assisting in innovation and economic development in northeast Tennessee. 

Throwing gas on fires
“We have world-class faculty at ETSU,” Golden said. “We may not always tell that story very well outside of our region, but we do. Part of the purpose of the research corporation is to find out what they’re working on and throw gasoline on it. If there’s anything we can do to help them interconnect and be the face that brings opportunities to them, especially from the business community, that is part of what we want to do.”

Most academic institutions aren’t built to react quickly to opportunities that involve more than one department or college, Golden said. “If you want to do something differently, you have to change the design. There’s not a lot of design of most universities of how to work across disciplines, and how to work outside the university, and how to work fast.”

While the existing design may work well for some aspects of an academic mission, Golden said, “when you’re going to be outward-facing, particularly with the business community, it doesn’t.”

Golden likened the research corporation’s mission of meshing the university’s existing structure with the faster-paced world of the private sector to building a transmission for a car, so projects can work in the relatively low-gear speeds of academia while still being able to shift up to the speed of business.

“You will see an effort that leverages ETSU’s world-class experiential learning opportunities in digital media and marketing,” Golden said.

In addition, Golden said, outside entities need to know what the university is capable of doing. “Universities market their sports programs fairly decently because that’s their most outward-facing thing. But, telling the stories of the world-class stuff some of the professors do, they’re not organized to do that, so they don’t do it as well.”

Golden pointed to ETSU’s digital marketing and communication efforts as an example. “What we do here is strong not just nationally, but at a world-class level. But, we’re not organized necessarily to tell our story.”

“You will see an effort that leverages ETSU’s world-class experiential learning opportunities in digital media and marketing,” Golden said, noting the effort will be based on the idea of creating value for all parties involved by working across traditional lines of academic demarcation.

Dr. Stephen Marshall, director of Experiential Learning and Chief Marketing Officer for the ETSU Research Corporation, is also chair of Media and Communication at ETSU. Before the research foundation was restructured as the research corporation, Marshall had worked in the effort to make ETSU the first university in the United States to earn accreditation from the Digital Marketing Institute (DMI), which is the largest accrediting digital marketing organization in the world. That effort bore fruit in the summer of 2020.

Marshall said the research corporation is now working to create a program that other colleges and universities could buy into in order for their students to receive not only credit hours, but also certification from DMI. That would be a huge benefit for the students and for the colleges, Marshall said.

“The DMI has 120,000 members worldwide,” Marshall said. “They have an advisory board with Google, Facebook, Hubspot, IBM and SAP.” Thus, a certification with that kind of credibility could go a long way in the employment market.

“We would bring the world-class faculty and tell colleges, ‘this is a class you can offer with no cost to you except that we’re going to split the tuition with you. There’s no lift for you, and you’ll be bringing a very relevant class with a DMI certification behind it.’” Marshall said he anticipates launching the effort in fall semester 2021, with a target of 10 participating colleges and universities.

Dr. Stephen Marshall Photo by Earl Neikirk

To Golden’s original point, the ETSU Research Corporation, Marshall said, makes it possible for multiple departments at ETSU to work together on projects like the DMI course. “I think the research corporation is here to help these students by knocking down silos. The students will be working with designers and computer science folks and marketing folks and communications folks just like we all do when we’re on teams outside the university. This is a class where professors from different disciplines all come together to create one class with one mission.”

Added Golden, “All these groups from four different departments on our campus have never been incentivized to ever work together. But, the students desperately want to work together and the industry wants them to work together because in the real world, they do work together. In business, they work in teams. So, this mimics that real-world situation.”

The entrepreneurial convener
“During the upcoming months, there will be significant focus on building the current entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Golden said.  “A lot of activity is taking place and the convening and partnering capability of the corporation helps to bring that together.

ETSU is one of the few entities that can convene the very loosely knit network of organizations that advocate for and assist entrepreneurs across the region, Golden said. “It’s not just expertise. It’s a matter of scale,” Golden said. “It’s no knock on other institutions. They just don’t have the scale of a university with 14,000 students, world-class faculty and influence that crosses state lines. We have grads everywhere, which means we have connections with businesses. We’re a very natural convener.”

“Also,” Golden continued, “we don’t really have a self-interest when we’re convening. We don’t want to take the place of any of the good stuff that’s already going on. We just want them to work together a little better.”

Before college
“Look at every study that’s been done on this in the last decade,” Golden said. “The skill sets necessary for the jobs of tomorrow are not in the pipeline today. So, to ensure that our region and our country has those skill sets necessary, we need to do our part.”

David Golden at the ETSU Valleybrook facility Photo by Earl Neikirk

Those skills, Golden said, are in fields such as synthetic biology, robotics, computer coding, artificial intelligence and engineering. The most effective ways to change the curricula of K-12 schools to include that kind of teaching is to develop “overlays” that can be taught with existing coursework.

Since K-12 teachers have neither the time, resources or political capital to build entire new curricula, Golden said, “ETSU is in a great place with the College of Business and Technology, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Honors College and the Clemmer College of Education.”

To that end, the research corporation will work to generate new opportunities through the work being done by community partners such as the Niswonger Foundation and STREAMWORKS as well as global platforms such as MATE II and BioBuilder. So, teachers who graduate from the Clemmer College will be certified to coach robotics or teach synthetic biology.

To help do it better
Regardless of whether the audience the research corporation is addressing is ETSU faculty, the regional business community, entrepreneurial organizations or K-12 educators, the approach will be the same, Golden said. “Whatever they’re doing, how do we help them do it better? The best way to develop islands isn’t to pour money into the individual islands. It’s to build bridges.

“Again, this research corporation isn’t intended to replace anything that’s going on,” Golden said. “It’s to unify what’s going on so we all work better together to amplify it.”

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