Lucy Moore (BS/CBE ’23) wanted a chance to apply what she was learning in the classroom at the University of Tennessee to what she would be asked to do in a business setting. Moore was eager to gain experience in the field to complement her educational foundation.
Moore didn’t have to search far to accomplish her goal.
Through the Spark Scholars program, Moore was selected for an internship with SkyNano Technologies, a science-based technology company focused on commercializing a free-market solution to carbon pollution.
“I hadn’t had such a hands-on internship experience before,” Moore said. “I absolutely loved it and decided that is what I wanted to continue for a full-time job.”
SkyNano offered Moore a full-time position before she began her senior year at UT in the fall of 2022. She graduated last May with a degree in chemical engineering and began work at SkyNano last August.
“It took away a lot of stress from not knowing where I would be working,” Moore said. “Starting a new job can be stressful, so it was nice to have already be familiar with everyone and make a really smooth transition.”
The Spark Scholars program at UT is a student internship/training program pioneered by the Center for Materials Processing, under the then-direction of Professor Claudia Rawn and Chad Duty, and the Spark Innovation Center, under the direction of Tom Rogers. The program brings together early-stage tech companies located at UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm and UT undergraduate engineering students for jointly sponsored internships related to materials and material processing-related research and development.
The mutually beneficial partnership provides a pipeline of talent for new businesses within the greater Knoxville community while giving students on-the-job education and training in cutting edge technology fields.
The pilot program began in the summer of 2022 with two undergraduates, including Moore, placed with a Spark company. It grew to eight students and five companies in the summer of 2023. The recent cohort included students majoring in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, and material science.
The interns have worked as research and development assistants on technologies that involve batteries, carbon capture, nanomaterial synthesis, micro-mobility solutions, and more. The interns are co-sponsored by CMP and the host company, which enables cost-effective intern positions for early-stage startups.
“It offers a lot of advantages to some of these young companies, not just in internships, but with access to facilities on campus to investigate materials and conduct material processing research,” said Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedoical Engineering Associate Professor and James Conklin Faculty Fellow Andy Sarles, who is the associate director of industrial relations for the CMP. “Many Spark companies have initiated facility membership agreements, which enables them to do more testing or use of instruments or have some quick analysis of material samples done at a university setting at a cost-effective rate.”
Philip Stuckey is the founder of FC Renew, a fuel cell manufacturing company that restores degraded hydrogen fuel cells at a lower cost. The work done by the company is performed in the flex-lab space in the Zeanah Engineering Complex or at the Institute for Advanced Materials & Manufacturing on UT’s campus, where it utilizes electron microscopy and small-angle X-ray scattering.
“Those types of tools and equipment are cost prohibitive and often access prohibitive for people to developing commercialized technologies like we are doing,” Stuckey said. “Spark gives us a place to incubate and grow by having access to the facilities and the space we lease from the university.”
Stuckey lauded UT for having the foresight to partner with start-up companies to foster technology development while empowering students to develop important technical and professional skills.
“I feel like for the last several centuries the role of academic institutions really hasn’t been configured to work the type of relationships we are building and developing with the university to develop technology that really needs that level of understanding and technical capabilities,” Stuckey said. “This program is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking with ways to do that and have a lot of success.”
Nicole Liu, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in material science and engineering, started her internship with FC Renew in June of 2023 and has continued in a part time role during the school year.
“I have definitely learned a lot from it, and I think it furthered my interest in the sustainable energy sector and how it affects the economy,” Liu said. “I saw a little bit more of the business side than I was expecting, which was honestly a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. I got a deeper look at how start-up companies function and the trials and errors they go through.”
Taking advantage of the Spark Scholars internship program has been a big benefit to FC Renew.
“The access to faculty and students who know how to use the equipment and the interns have really helped us increase our experimental volume,” Stuckey said. “It’s been a rewarding process on both sides because it puts myself and my colleagues from our company’s side in the role of mentor much the way the faculty would be in terms of helping students develop and understand their hands-on and data-processing capabilities.”
Anfinn Chilsen, a senior mechanical engineering major, has been serving an internship with Holocene Climate Corporation, which builds machines that pull carbon dioxide directly from the air. Chilsen works with the controls engineer to develop the hardware and software architecture for a demonstration model.
“I have gotten experience coding, which doesn’t pertain to what I want to do, but it’s definitely great knowledge to have in my back pocket,” he said. “It’s been very beneficial because I am sure I will use it in the future. I am really happy I learned it and advanced my skills.”
SkyNano Co-Founder and CEO Anna Douglas was an immediate proponent of the Spark Scholars program when she was first approached about the idea. Through the co-sponsorship with CMP, SkyNano has been able to hire four interns and has started looking for more for the upcoming summer.
“For start-up companies, access to talent is one of the main drivers of our success and that applies across the board from technical talent, non-technical, full-time, part-time,” Douglas said. “For SkyNano, in particular, we have really benefitted from being able to bring students in during summers and for us to really understand how they work and what their skill set is.”
Douglas is an advocate of mentoring and teaching. She thought about becoming a professor before launching SkyNano and carries that mindset into her leadership at work by giving interns projects that allow them to accomplish a task.
“The projects might be a little bit more straight forward and lower risk, but they still can have a high impact,” Douglas said. “I want the students to be able to build confidence that the things they work on can have an impact and that allows them to see their work outcomes.”
UT senior electrical engineering major Kile Dickey became a Spark Scholars intern with SkyNano last May. Like Moore, he has accepted a full-time position at the company once he graduates. Dickey has continued working 20-30 hours per week at the company’s new spacious office while still in school. He recently designed an electrical box for a system that lifts electrodes out of molten salt baths with a joystick control.
“I learned quite a bit through my internship, and not even just about electrical engineering, but about mechanical engineering and chemistry,” Dickey said. “I really look forward to continuing to help with more projects as the company expands. There is going to be a lot of electrical work needed to help us increase production and I am excited to be a part of the team to help.”
During her internship with SkyNano, Moore built a system that purifies carbon nanotubes when they come out of the growth process to rid them of contamination. She has continued to work on the system since being hired full time.
Moore is grateful for all the opportunities she received at UT and encourages other students to take advantage of the resources the university offers to help build the path to a future career. CMP has been thrilled with the early results of Spark Scholars and hopes more students and companies will take part in the coming year to fuel its continued growth.
“Don’t be afraid to work for start-ups. Don’t let that intimidate you,” Moore said. “I have learned so much more here since I have been exposed to so many different things. Even if the field doesn’t pertain exactly to your major, you are able to learn so much that will help you broaden your skills.”
Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683, firstname.lastname@example.org)