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Gov. Bill Lee announces $72 million to the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute to make East TN a STEM hub

Dustin Gilmer, a Kingsport native, is part of the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. He said outside of ORII he'd have to leave TN to get this type of education.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — At his State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee said his proposed budget includes $72 million for the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute, a collaboration between the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

"Our commitment to innovation will continue right on to the Oak Ridge Corridor," Lee said. "We will be investing $70 million to complete the Oak Ridge Innovation Institute." 

The institute's executive director, Joan Bienvenue, said they will use the money to invest in more research, take on more students and develop the workforce in East Tennessee. 

Dustin Gilmer, one a member of the Oak Ridge Institute, said he grew up on a farm in Kingsport. His family has lived in Appalachia for five generations. 

Gilmer is a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, and through the Oak Ridge Institute, Gilmer researches 3D printing. 

Through his research, Gilmer developed a binder that could take sand, 3D print with it, and make sand stronger than concrete. 

His research was so successful, Gilmer and a colleague spun it off into a startup.

"If I wanted to go get an equal level of education anywhere else, it would have had to be outside the state of Tennessee," Gilmer said. 

He said he's thankful he can stay close to home. 

Bienvenue said Gilmer is an example of the Oak Ridge Institute's intention. She said she would like to keep and attract STEM talent to East Tennessee. 

"We take a student like Dustin, who's doing such wonderful research," Bienvenue said. "Taking those ideas, spinning them out into startup companies and then taking advantage of the entire economic and innovation network that exists in East Tennessee." 

Over the summer, the Oak Ridge Institute invited students to work on research in East Tennessee through the SMART Internship. 

RELATED: ORNL, UT collaborate to make East Tennessee a technology corridor

Many of those students said they had not considered working in East Tennessee until their internship. 

State lawmakers will have to approve the governor's budget before the Oak Ridge Innovation Institute gets the $72 million. 

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