September 2019
By Cody Behles

Image: © FedEx Institute of Technology

Cody Behles serves as Associate Director of Innovation and Research Support at the University of Memphis FedEx Institute of Technology. He has previously served as a faculty librarian for emerging technologies, and works to find new opportunities to reimagine how higher education and industry collaborate. He advises several startups and works to advance Memphis as a destination for innovation.


cbehles@memphis.edu


www.linkedin.com/in/cody-behles-34435223

The Memphis innovation model: Building a blockchain community

Creating an innovative environment fostering growth and a strong economy is the aim of any metropolis. By focusing on blockchain technology – both in their educational institutions and in the business sector – Memphis, Tennessee has redefined itself as an innovation hub.

When thinking of cities associated with technology innovation, your mind might jump to places such as San Francisco or Boston. These "idea capitals" are naturally well-situated to take on the role of innovation leaders with companies such as Google, Facebook and Boston Dynamics sustaining the image in our minds that everything is possible in these places. While the major tech players have become the defining feature of the innovation landscape in these markets, it was the concentration of research universities that initially helped to attract and retain top talent in these cities. In fact, if you look at any city that lays claim to a leadership role in the innovation landscape – Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, London, Toronto – you will find a landscape that includes multiple research institutions working in close geographic proximity.

Simplifying the formula for success to "more research universities equals more technology innovation" doesn’t do complete justice to why certain cities succeed as capitals of innovation while others flounder, but it is certainly a key contributing factor. Every city aims to take a leadership role and to be seen as a hub for innovation, but the reality is that resources are scarce, talent is even scarcer, and building a reputation is an uphill battle. Midsize to large cities around the world want to be relevant nodes in the innovation network but are disadvantaged compared to their larger and more established urban counterparts.

Memphis – an innovation hub on the rise

With a population of approximately 650,000 within the city limits and 1.2 million in the wider surrounding area, Memphis, TN is an example of a large city that few today would consider to be in the same class as the innovation hubs mentioned above. The city’s research landscape is defined by two principal institutions: the state medical school, UTHSC, and for all other disciplines, the University of Memphis. A collection of smaller liberal arts colleges (Rhodes, Christian Brothers University) round out the higher education options. Though every midsize city has its own unique mix, the distinguishing role of research institutions in the innovation landscape is a common feature of all urban centers. For a city of its size, Memphis has relatively few high-impact research institutions.

Given the role of large cities as powerhouses of innovation and the competition among other cities for a seat at that table, how does an individual city distinguish itself? The answer lies in the ability of each city to play to its strengths and for the universities in those cities to foster innovation through public-private partnerships. These partnerships can solve big challenges but, more importantly, they contribute to the transformation of the innovation landscape, so that others begin to see your innovation climate as strategically differentiated on a national level. We will examine how Memphis has done this by looking at the work of the University of Memphis and the FedEx Institute of Technology in the space around blockchain – one of several emerging technologies. From this example, we will provide practical guidelines for urban centers to cultivate their innovation reputations and help grow their competitive advantage in cultivating an innovation ecosystem.

The FedEx Institute of Technology model       

The FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis was founded in 2003 to foster technology innovation and entrepreneurship across the midsouth region. In 2015, the FedEx Institute of Technology was reorganized to focus exclusively on emerging technologies innovation research. Since the Institute’s founding, Memphis had grown substantial entrepreneurship resources, but the relatively low level of competition in the research landscape meant that the University of Memphis was sorely lacking the resources to turn research into innovations that translated clearly to and resonated with the private sector. The FedEx Institute solved this by adopting a research innovation cluster model that brought together research leaders from across our campus to think deeply about big trends in emerging technologies that resonated with industries in our area: additive manufacturing, biologistics, unmanned and autonomous systems, agriculture and food science technologies, smart cities, and others. Each of these clusters was informed by trends that we recognized would impact our partners and our city in some way, and by having a research community that focused on the topics early, we could play a crucial role in cultivating the direction of the conversation within our city as well as in a national context.

This model relied on the faculty to help cultivate community by leading their peers in exploring the trends. By allowing the faculty to lead, the institute was also able to focus on identifying rising trends in technology that would impact the businesses and industries that comprise the largest industries in our metro area: logistics, medical devices, finance, etc. Blockchain was one of the first technologies that we began to seriously consider after reorganizing the institute because of the impact of this technology on several different industries in our area. It is important to the larger narrative to understand that when the FedEx Institute first started developing programs in blockchain, there was little serious research happening at any institution in our region, but there was a clear potential commercial value to the technology.

Research is the driving force of the FedEx Institute model, but the roles of workforce development and community development are equally important. It doesn’t help to serve as a leader in technology innovation if the work does not translate into something that companies can learn, apply, and use to improve their businesses. Universities are by their very nature workforce development engines, but the nature of a traditional degree program is inherently slower than the pace of modern business. In order for teams across an organization to stay nimble, it is critical that research institutions provide modified corporate training opportunities designed to equip teams quickly with a particular skillset in order to assist corporations in advancing their objectives and growing their companies. The FedEx Institute does this by examining the market for our region and filling gaps in professional development. Our goal is not to compete with training shops that do their jobs well, but to serve as a bespoke rapid training solution so that corporations have what they need in order to stay competitive. While that sometimes includes programming languages such as R for stats or machine learning, it also includes things like Virtual Reality object-oriented programming and Agile testing. Whatever is needed – we will do it until someone else can do it better.

Community development is the third piece of the puzzle, and this is where we create the intersecting opportunities for technologists in our area to work together – a critical requirement for companies looking to attract top talent. By hosting meetups, hackathons, game jams, and tech conferences at no cost we encourage a dialogue that, when combined with the research and workforce components, solves some of the largest challenges in building Memphis as a destination for technology innovation.

Phase 1 – Blockchain as an emerging technology

The first blockchain workshop ever held in Memphis was held at the FedEx Institute of Technology in the fall of 2016. Building upon the recent eruption of the Ethereum platform and the promise of blockchain for a number of industries in our area, the Institute realized that a greater emphasis on professional development was needed in order for people to understand what the technology was, how it could be utilized, and where it was going. We partnered with a team from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and their company Peer Ledger to build the first blockchain workshops.

As a result of that first training, the nonprofit Blockchain901 came into existence, and several of the founders of blockchain companies based in Memphis as well as teams that would eventually comprise FedEx’s leadership on the topic were in attendance. Blockchain, a transparent, distributed, ledger-based technology, is ideal for industries that handle thousands of transactions where monitoring the status is critical. Due to the distributed nature of the chain, actors in transactions can minimize the trust required by any one individual by moving transactions to the blockchain. Whether you are shipping cotton from Uzbekistan and need to ensure that no child labor was used in the process, or conducting a legal transaction between multiple parties, the distribution of trust to all parties ensures that the financial and social values placed on the transaction can be preserved from one end of the process to the other.

That first workshop led to more workshops that were focused on specific applications. The institute partnered with the Memphis Bar Association to conduct a recurring workshop for lawyers on smart contracts and their role in the legal field. We held the first blockchain hackathon EthMemphis, bringing together over twenty teams of developers from as far away as Argentina to explore specific application developments. We started making contacts and bridging connections to create dynamic engagements in blockchain. We also started to see our faculty working on topics around blockchain across campus, which culminated in the last two years with several new faculty hires who emphasize blockchain in their research.

Phase 2 – Public-private partnership speeds up

We had a great deal of momentum in the blockchain space and were starting to see companies such as FedEx taking up leadership roles at a national level in the blockchain conversation. As all of this was happening, the Institute began developing the University of Memphis’s first research park. The UMRF (University of Memphis Research Foundation) Research Park, which opened in January 2019, was designed to address the end of the innovation lifecycle in the same way that the FedEx Institute addressed the beginning: The research park would help companies that had gone through incubation find a home to scale up and grow in Memphis. The tremendous logistics networks in Memphis (98 of the Fortune 100 companies have a logistics footprint here) positioned the UMRF Research Park to attract companies in that sector from across the country – but that wasn’t exactly what happened.

The work we had been doing in blockchain for the last three years began to attract companies that recognized Memphis as a leader in the space. These companies saw the value of the logistics infrastructure in Memphis but were also leveraging unique perspectives on blockchain and tying different industries together in innovative ways. XYO from San Diego, DexFreight from Texas, MinuteSchool from Toronto, plus four local blockchain-based companies in Book Local, Web3Devs, and Good Shepherd Pharmacy, and Blockchain901 meant that a majority of companies in the park had a blockchain focus. As a result of this concentration, other research park companies such as IMC Corps, DayaMed, and Green Mountain Technology began exploring how to apply blockchain within their businesses.

The ripple effect from a single technology workshop that started at the FedEx Institute of Technology only three years before had grown into research, professional development, and a concentration of over ten companies in one space working on blockchain. As the partnerships and opportunities continue to grow, combined with the additional efforts in the blockchain healthcare space from organizations in the Nashville area, Tennessee is fast becoming the largest single concentration of blockchain talent in the United States.

This could not have happened without the willing partners and innovators that carried the community forward. It also isn’t over yet. While we have made great strides, the coming years will provide even more possibilities for this technology, and we look forward to helping enable their success.   

The Memphis model for innovation

Every city will tell you that they are unique – they aren’t doing their job if they don’t sell what’s special. While we certainly have great companies such as FedEx to partner with, every city has corporate entities that they can point to with pride that help to define the unique character of their city. The Memphis model for innovation is one that has developed out of practical considerations and resource limitations. It relies on partners, community, and accelerating the things that the city does best. Every research landscape is unique and, leveraged correctly, it can serve to build your city’s capacity as a center of innovation. Below are some distilled guidelines for how the Memphis model has worked.

City, know thyself. Innovation capitals such as San Francisco and Boston have become increasingly competitive and astronomically expensive. As these places become untenable, smaller cities with specific industry focuses will grow in popularity among startups and innovators in specific sectors. For Memphis, the logistics, medical device, agriculture, and education industries are key. For your city, it may be something else. Celebrate the industries you have, look at the intersecting research interests at your universities, and explore the resources that make your city a unique investment for innovators.

No collaboration is off limits. Whether you are a company, a university, or a nonprofit, you all live in the same city. Maximizing efficiency in innovation means being open to collaborating with everyone – even your competitors. If you can’t bring yourself to partner directly, go talk to a third party such as a university and find some common ground.

Technology innovation and workforce development are inseparable. No company is going to be able to adopt a new technology if your workforce isn’t able to

 

  1. understand how the technology is good for business,
  2. help you scale the technology,
  3. tell you when the technology isn’t working and why.

Leverage your universities to create novel training approaches if you can’t find exactly what you are looking for.

Invest smart and often. Your money goes further in smaller cities, but putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. Look for innovators that have big ideas or novel approaches and grow with them. Encouraging students, researchers, and the technology community can sometimes pay bigger dividends than capital investment in startups and the initial investment is usually smaller. Invest in the junior faculty at your research institutions – they are the future of innovation in your city.

Find good ROI on university investments. Partnering with a university has traditionally been a largely philanthropic effort. This might be the case, but if you can find relationships that generate real and immediate ROI for both parties, then the relationship can lead to much stronger ties and benefits for both parties. Students are the best employees you will ever find.

Pass the baton: For the FedEx Institute of Technology, our best successes are the ones we can hand off. We help to cultivate good ideas and get them started, but you need to have teams ready to help carry the ball forward. Your best ideas will never succeed if no one else believes in them. The handoff may mean passing the ball to another company or organization entirely, and you have to be open to that.

It doesn’t matter what technology you are considering, and it doesn’t matter which city you’re looking at. Every person has the capacity for innovation and every city has the capacity to grow into a destination for innovators. For Memphis, blockchain has been a great success. It won’t be the last, and it may not be the biggest, but the model we have established ensures we can give every technology the best shot at success.