Soni steps in to bolster TTU’s research, economic development goals

COOKEVILLE – It’s late November, just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, and Dr. Bharat K. Soni is still settling into his new office.

All along the windowsills are pictures, awards and other trinkets showing accomplishments of years past. He came to Tennessee Tech just months before, in August, part of university’s push to strengthen its economic development efforts – and research department.

He left a long-running position at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), where he was renowned for his contributions, to become the vice president for research and economic development, a new position for Tech. Here, he’s hit the ground running – and has a lot of ideas, so excuse the fact he’s still settling in to his new workspace.

“I love to build things,” said Soni. “I built things at UAB from scratch, and I think there’s a very good potential for that here. I like the challenge.

“The world is changing,” he added. “We’re in a global environment. And we have a very good global presence in a very small community (with Cummins, Flowserve, REI). I don’t know whether the university has leveraged that…at the level it should. I’m very well convinced that the leadership and the community are ready for something like this.”

Tennessee Tech, throughout the years, has arguably been much better known for its engineering than its research. Soni is looking to change that – or at least bolster the latter. He says he wants to increase – by more than double – the dollar-figure tied to the university’s external, sponsored research, and in general, create more of an entrepreneurial culture in the region, among other expectations.

“We want to do things to bring the community together; we want to be very vital to the community at large,” he said. “The university is pretty well linked to the community. But you could probably expedite that linkage.”

A change of culture

Achieving that growth, specifically in terms of research, admittedly will require a bit of a culture change, which will take time, although Soni doesn’t see it a particular challenge. Externally funded research opportunities can come from a variety of resources, including public and private: NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and others.

“(TTU) is not known for its research. That has to be ramped up drastically, which will require a change of culture,” Soni said. “But the beauty of that is, we have some very good faculty, we have very good students. I don’t see that as an issue.”

Tech, last year, received less than $12 million through externally funded grants and contracts, Soni said. According to an annual report for the university’s Office of Research, that’s a decline of 9 percent from 2011-2012, a decrease attributed to the decline in the global economy, sequestration, and the reduced number of faculty participating in grants acquisition.

Soni wants to increase that $12 million number to $25 million in the next four to five years, working with faculty and staff to write more successful proposals, to increase the overall number of proposals submitted, and working with leadership to continually encourage those efforts.

“I want to go beyond that ($25 million) number. But it’s at least the target we are going to go after,” he said. “Now how do you go about doing that? We have the right leadership in place. We all have to work together to make this thing happen, by creating an environment they can be more productive.”

It also happens by leveraging university resources, he said.

“We have STEM Center, for example,” Soni continued. “That’s a gold mine on campus, and we have not fully leveraged that. You have to focus on the areas unique to Tech, to the community. I want to create what I call a ‘wow’ factor.”

Part of his plans to up the “wow” factor includes a new virtual reality center on campus. He proudly shows his plans for the lab. It’s easier to see, he said, than explain. The center would, at first, be located in the library, he said, but would be open to all disciplines. It would allow computer simulation for a variety of applications. Soni had a similar center at UAB and it touched on biomedical, homeland security, military, education, entertainment and more.

“This is going to create another environment that I think is going to attract attention to Tech,” Soni said.

Increased visibility

Soni’s position also has an economic development aspect. Tech has had a hand in the region’s job growth – whether through the TechRedi program, which worked to enhance the economic environment in the Upper Cumberland, or its plans for an innovation center on the campus of the soon-to-be-completed Highlands Business Park. Soni said the innovation center will serve as a “very critical element” in economic development but will also give the university additional exposure.

“Let’s say you are from Boston, Mass. You drive on I-40, and you completely miss Tech. There’s a sign that says, ‘turn here,’ but you completely miss it. Having a building there with the Tennessee Tech logo/signage, you see that.

“Our goal is to mark Tennessee Tech’s presence on the Highlands area,” he added.

Soni is looking for ways to not only leverage the university assets within the community but outside the Upper Cumberland’s borders as well. He hopes to work closely with industries in town, from Cummins to Flexial and more.

“When we think of economic development, we think of bringing in companies. But there is a potential for re-creating companies as well,” he said.

“Traditionally, when we do research, universities create new ideas, but those ideas stay in journal papers,” Soni added. “We need to look at this research and see what ideas we can take and commercialize. That is something that can help with the growth of the research.”

His office, meanwhile, has a good view of campus. From his desk, he can watch as students walk busily to class. He knows a lot of new ideas will come from them in particular, and he hopes they will be inspired by the renewed efforts.

“We have lots of potential there,” he said. “I want the community to be involved because economic ideas can come from any direction.

“Our strength is our people. We will be vital.”