State’s high-tech challenge: Turn Tennessee Valley into a Silicon Valley

Securing the future of Tennessee-based technology endeavors requires stronger appreciation and support for scientific research and development within the state, says Janos Sztipanovits, director of Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems.

Janos Sztipanovits
Janos Sztipanovits

With about $15 million in grants under contract each year, Sztipanovits stresses that even though ISIS is “very much in the forefront” in key scientific fields, competition for key allies and major funding has become increasingly fierce during the past five years, creating a “volatile” environment for securing the financial support that is crucial to sustaining research faculty and staff.

ISIS today is strongly allied with peers while working on projects from the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and federal departments of energy, education and homeland security, NASA, HHS and other agencies.  ISIS teams are working with top universities, research institutes and companies like Boeing, Qualcomm, BAE Systems and more than 30 other companies, on a range of groundbreaking projects.

“We need to remain awfully competitive” in future years, he adds, and ISIS needs Nashville and Tennessee to help. In fact, he says, to sustain ISIS and other advanced research long term, it is essential that Nashville and Tennessee become known as “a vibrant high-tech area where the government knows about [scientific efforts underway] and aspires to help” expand the research and development enterprise.

Sztipanovits says because “the biggest value is always retaining the best people,” the local scientific community needs Nashville’s support.

He explains that the very best scientific talent is hotly recruited by competing institutions, and sought-after faculty, research staff and students are often very concerned that the community they choose demonstrates dynamic interest in sciences and technologies, as well as in commercialization of technologies and entrepreneurial activity.  While ISIS had success in growing into a high-tech power house with 130 people, recruiting remains a huge challenge.

Thus, Sztipanovits says he believes Metro Nashville government should, among other things, act in meaningful ways to help breed “a cloud” of small aggressive companies that would partner with campus scientists to provide such things as summer employment with industry, and which could collaborate with scientists in pursuing major grants and then help commercialize technologies and knowledge produced on campus.

Collaboration with industry is crucial because while scientists must focus most of their energies on their work, in the “brutally competitive research business” we must also “push out” technology through commercialization, which requires ready access to a highly motivated business community, says Sztipanovits, E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Engineering, and professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science.

Offering an example of collaboration, he says ISIS has “a fantastic relationship” with MathWorks, a Boston-area company that provides software for technical computing and model-based software design of the sort in which ISIS specializes, “and they hire our engineers and Ph.D.’s.” Sztipanovits would like to develop similar relationships with companies here.

Sztipanovits says, lest anyone dismiss the importance of creating a richer technology culture within the community, he believes that sometimes when certain types of grants are awarded, and it’s a close call, awards may go to competing researchers who are based in communities with stronger reputations for science and technology.

Without greater community focus on science and technology, he says, ISIS and other scientists will continue to be at a disadvantage when competing with the relatively “massive size” of research infrastructure within such institutions as the Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford Research Institute and the University of Southern California.

Whether it’s by creating an industry research and development park or other tactics, Sztipanovits says, scientists need Tennessee and Nashville to act in ways that demonstrate “there is an intention, a commitment … to creating a first-class vibrant research environment.”

Janos Sztipanovits is the E. Bronson Ingram Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Vanderbilt University. He is founding director of the Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS). His current research interest includes the foundation and applications of model-integrated computing for the design of cyber physical systems. His other research contributions include structurally adaptive systems, autonomous systems, design space exploration and systems-security co-design technology. He served as program manager and acting deputy director of DARPA/ITO between 1999 and 2002. He was founding chair of the ACM Special Interest Group on Embedded Software (SIGBED). Sztipanovits was elected Fellow of the IEEE in 2000 and external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2010. He graduated from the Technical University of Budapest in 1970 and received his doctorate from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1980.