University District

Startup support space, other new initiatives groom the University District to be an innovation hub

The University of Memphis and the FedEx Institute of Technology are dismantling the ivory tower and incorporating new initiatives that lift up the greater University District as a destination for technology and innovation. 

At the core of this new strategy is the Communitech Research Park, a physical space where new technology startups can collaborate with the University of Memphis to develop research capacity and create new jobs for university students.

Communitech will be housed within 25,000 square feet at 460 S. Highland Street, a former branch of the Memphis Public Library which currently serves as a satellite office for campus police services.

The startup incubator and research space will open in the fall with tenants moving in by September and a grand opening planned before the end of the year. Campus police services and the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation will also use a portion of the space as well.

The startups that work out of the Communitech space will be embedded in the academic community by partnering with FIT research clusters.

A research cluster is a formally recognized group of researchers whose research expertise is applied either to a common topic, field of study. These researchers can be clustered to work on a collaborative research project or a set of related projects.

The university already has research clusters around the topics of biologistics, smart cities, additive manufacturing, drones, cybersecurity and testing. The Communitech partners will be able to access those clusters — the researchers, their work and data, or their lab space — for their business or nonprofit.

A view of the Communitech Research Park at 460 Highland Street, which is under development and will open in the fall. (Kim Coleman)

"This is more than just a co-work space, it is an opportunity to help develop a unique experience for citizen corporations,” said Cody Behles, assistant director of Innovation & Research Support with FedEx Institute of Technology. "U of M Research and Innovation Clusters will work with partners to help seed companies into the Memphis community, showing that Memphis is the choice for growth framed in the context of a research-driven institution like the University of Memphis."

All of this is part of the master plan for creating the University District presented four years ago by U of M. Many of the major elements of that plan have been executed already, including the most recent on-going construction for the Southern Avenue pedestrian overpass.

By focusing on innovation and technology, the University hopes to up its profile globally, thereby attracting national and international companies to the area.

"We applaud this program (Communitech) and others that demonstrate the university's clear and obvious commitment to innovation, entrepreneurship, and the expansion of access to critical resources across its campus. Any program that makes the assets of the university public in physical, accessible spaces is great for cities like Memphis that have maturing and scaling networks supporting innovators and entrepreneurs," said Leslie Smith, executive director of Epicenter, a entrepreneurship service organization in Memphis.

The first tenants in the Communitech space are nonprofit Memphis Women in Technology, two out-of-town blockchain startups that have relocated to Memphis, and DayaMed, a Waterloo, Canada-based medical technology company that recently brought its headquarters to Memphis.

“The innovative and collaborative engagement with the University of Memphis and the FedEx Institute of Technology was a perfect synergistic relationship for DayaMed as we scale,” said Justin Daya, CEO of DayaMed.

A view of the Communitech Research Park at 460 Highland Street, which is under development and will open in the fall. (Kim Coleman)

FIT and the U of M recruited two blockchain startups, Miami-based DexFreight and Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Peer Ledger, to be early tenants in the Communitech space.

If the term 'blockchain' sound esoteric to you, you’re probably not alone. Blockchains are growing lists of records, or blocks. They are linked via cryptography, or code writing. Each block’s information is based on the previous; they are resistant to modification by design, although not unalterable. If a block is changed, each subsequent block must be altered as well. Practical applications began in 2014 with the advent of the digital currency Bitcoin.

There are public and private applications for the technology. In regards to Bitcoin, blockchains essentially act as a central bank, managing the value and flow of currency; however, they are decentralized and peer-to-peer managed.

They also have the potential for use throughout the broader economy, particularly in the logistics and automotive industries, which makes Memphis a natural launching pad for this burgeoning technology.

“Memphis is a natural home for not only these two blockchain companies, but any technology companies that focus on the big industries in and around Memphis — logistics, medical device, hospitality, and agriculture,” said Behles.

DexFreight, for example, is attempting to disrupt the freight industry via blockchain in order to collaborate and move shipments more efficiently.

“Memphis presents an exciting opportunity to dexFreight as we grow in the space of blockchain applications for the logistics industry,” said Dr. Rajat Rajbhandari, dexFreight co-founder and CEO. “The potential to cultivate a 21st-century workforce in partnership with the University of Memphis and the FedEx Institute of Technology’s research clusters is a major driver for our decision to operate in Memphis.”

Peer Ledger is incorporating blockchain technology into the automotive industry. With automotive plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, along with Memphis' logistics center, the bluff city is a fitting spot for its national headquarters.

Also among the new FIT initiatives is an IT Command Center that will employ 45 university graduate students.

The IT Command Center is tied to UMRF Ventures, a private company launched by the university in 2017 to facilitate partnerships between private companies, like FedEx, and U of M. Students are employed by UMRF, trained by FedEx team members and clear enough to cover tuition. At the new IT Command Center, students will work on data analytics and practical problem solving with FedEx IT professionals.

According to Behles, “The most frequently cited reason for students not completing their degree is a lack of funding opportunities; UMRF Ventures was established to help solve this problem while at the same time providing high-quality professional training for students from all disciplines.”

Developing the physical Communitech space and expanding the reach of FIT are part of the overall strategy for developing the University District into a hub of innovation. Companies like dexFreight, Peer Ledger and DayaMed are the first citizens of this district. Collaborative technology research will strengthen the district's relationship to the university and raise the global profile of the city as a whole.

“Communitech is the first step in the execution of this mission. When we look at places like San Francisco, Boston, and even Nashville, we see a lot of inspiring innovation coupled with real social problems and a loss of identity in the process.

The University District hopes to learn from the mistakes of these innovation centers by building a collaboration that creates ownership for the community, the university and the companies that choose to call the University District home,” said Behles.

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