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magazine home > archives > fall 2002 > features

University of Memphis President Shirley Raines calls it the biggest project in the school's history. Others hail it as the coming of a new age of high-tech research opportunities on campus. But whatever the tag, the FedEx Technology Institute will dramatically change the face of The U of M campus.

Ex Marks the Spot
by Greg Russell

Rendering of FedEx Technology Institute

Located adjacent to the Fogelman College of Business and Economics, the FedEx Technology Institute will allow campus scientists more research opportunities.

Minds are racing, heads are spinning and a man oft described as a visionary and prophet hasn't even gotten to the good part.

"This building, this Institute, will allow The University of Memphis to become the technology breeding ground of the region," says Jim Phillips (BA '73, MBA '76). "Not Atlanta, nor Dallas — but a school right here in Memphis."

Phillips has just finished detailing a sometimes astounding vision of what the FedEx Technology Institute (FTI) will be when he delivers this final knockout blow.

The Institute, scheduled to open in Fall of 2003, is a $23-million collaboration between The U of M and FedEx Corp. The four-story, 93,000-square-foot facility will create a regional interdisciplinary research think tank and technology education center unrivaled in the Mid-South. FedEx has invested $5 million in the project; $15 million is coming from the state and another $3 million from the city and county.

Phillips, chair and executive director of the Institute, says the FTI will be an internationally renowned information technology epicenter when completed. Its mission, he says, is to produce a digitally savvy work force and student pool, conduct interdisciplinary research and be a resource for local businesses to come together to find solutions to real-world problems.

Scientists from across campus will be able to access the latest high-tech tools and multimedia techniques to conduct research individually and collaboratively. The entire fourth floor of the facility will house the Center for Intelligent Systems, where researchers are creating software programs that allow computers to think.

Professors at The U of M can access, for instance, the largest atomic microscope in the world at Oak Ridge National Laboratory because of global collaborations and partnerships with research facilities.

Technology transfer will be emphasized at the Institute, where a non-profit research corporation will eventually establish patents and collect royalties resulting from University-related innovations.

The facility will be on the Internet2 backbone, the next-generation Internet linking 205 universities and research laboratories.

Of utmost importance, Phillips says, the FTI will give the University a facility that will expose research that many say is often a "well-kept" secret.

"It takes a project like this and a vision such as the one we are seeking to produce a signature program that will attract national and international attention," Phillips says. "I saw this happen at MIT."

Dr. Stan Franklin, co-director of the Center for Intelligent Systems, says the FTI will give campus scientists more space for research and better opportunities for interactions with off-campus researchers.

"The institute should provide a major boon to our already quite vigorous computer science research program, as well as to that of our multi-disciplinary Center for Intelligent Systems," Franklin notes.

The magnitude of the project is not going unnoticed.

In a four-part series, the Memphis Business Journal detailed the Institute's impact and importance to the Mid-South. Local and state government officials say the project's worth is immeasurable.

"This is the most exciting private-public partnership we have going in this state," says Tony Grande, commissioner of the Tennessee Office of Economic and Community Development. "It's a prime example of what Memphis and cities around the state need to do to ensure they become top-tier players in a new economy characterized by high tech and high skill."

Common ground

It is no secret that great research universities need signature buildings, unique programs and intense collaborations with high-tech businesses to put its mark on the map. The U of M has had all the ingredients, but no one place to combine them with outside sources. This deficiency has affected the University's reputation, partnerships and research possibilities.

"The U of M suffers from not having many direct connections to the regional Memphis business community or anybody in the country, for that matter," Phillips says.

FedEx Corporation CIO Rob Carter says, "When you look at the greatest examples — Stanford as it relates to Silicon Valley, MIT as it relates to Boston — you see this incredible support and symbiotic relationship as it exists between business, business start-ups and a university environment. This was an element that was missing from the Memphis scene."

Carter says the shipping giant usually does research internally, but the Institute will change that.

"The FedEx Institute will be a place where business people can go and build out their ideas and take them forward — we want it to be a collaborative place where we can gather with other businesses and find solutions to real-life problems we're facing — a place for practical, tactical problem-solving," Carter says.

One of the first partnerships announced by the Institute is with Accurate Automation of Knoxville, Tenn., which eventually may increase fuel efficiency for FedEx planes.

John Ellis, associate director of the Institute, says the facility will help push the University to the forefront of research in many ways.

"One of the functions of the Institute is to shine a light on the best and brightest at this University and this region, the tech savvy," says Ellis. "The Institute will bring those research projects that tap into Internet2 greater visibility in the community and the region."

Across the digital divide

Phillips, a co-founder of Skytel and former vice president of Motorola, stresses the effect digital technology has on the social and economic climate of the world. He says one of the main focuses of the FTI will be to "deal with the digital re-architecture of business, education, health care, government and entertainment and the arts."

FTI Director Jim Phillips  
Jim Phillips  

"It's not how big things have gotten, but how small," Phillips says. "Today we work in nanometers — that is one-billionth of a meter. We can build a working guitar in nanospace the size of a single human cell. We can write the entire encyclopedia on the head of a pin and have the capability to read it.

"We are going to exploit this technology to make sure that Memphis ends up on the right side of the digital divide."

The Institute will include several centers for many new and ongoing research projects across campus. The Center for Spatial Analysis will include the University's Ground Water Institute, which is working on ways to solve drinking-water problems that kill thousands of people each day around the world. This center will also work with the already-established Center for Earthquake Research and Information with advanced national seismic system research.

The Center for Multimedia Arts will offer the entertainment business boundless opportunities.

"We are the birthplace of rock 'n' roll — everything in the music industry is becoming digitalized," Phillips says. "We have had discussions with major players in the recording industry about putting in a digital post-production lab where we will have the ability to digitalize content. We could have Elvis singing a digital duet with Britney Spears."

The Center for Life Sciences, which includes the Feinstone Center for Genomic Research, will offer a virtual wet lab and nanotechnology. Partnerships with the Hartwell Center at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and with the Memphis BioTech Foundation have been established within this center.

Development of aviation engineering technology will be possible in the Center for Next Generation Transportation. Other areas include the Center for Digital Economic and Regional Development, the Center for Supply Chain Management and the Center for Managing Emerging Technology, which is the outreach arm of the Institute.

"We will have world-class technology leaders the caliber of Bill Gates presenting a series of seminars," Phillips says. One of the more interactive tools at the Institute will be a "presentation theatre" in which students and professors can become immersed in their studies.

A student hoping to master the skills of an orchestra conductor will put on a plastic suit loaded with motion sensors. After a practice session in the theatre, professors will be able to sit down with students and analyze the conductor's movements compared to the musical score frame by frame. Student conductors will be able to spot flaws in their movements.

A 21st century renaissance

The FedEx Technology Institute
is already on its way to becoming firmly established as a major research center.

Under alumnus Jim Phillips, the mission of the FTI began to crystallize last spring. Original plans called for the Institute to just be an IT training center, but the executive director wanted an internationally renowned research epicenter for the region. Phillips has been involved with various high-tech companies and was most recently chair and CEO of Interactive Pictures Corp. (iPIX).

The Institute also named tech-guru John Ellis, a U of M philosopher, and Sandy Schaeffer (MS ’82) as associate directors.

The FedEx brand is opening many doors. Knoxville’s IdleAire Technologies Corp. and Accurate Automation have joined as the first two corporate research partners. Oak Ridge National Laboratory will partner with the Institute, allowing access to an incredible array of research tools.

Two noted research directors have joined the Executive Advisory Board, which will be made up of scientists and professionals from around the world. Bill Madia of the Oak Ridge lab and Mike Hawley of MIT are the board’s first two members.

Phillips says the FTI will maintain a strong connection to students by offering innovative degree programs.

"A 21st-century student deserves a 21st-century education," he says. "We want our students to feel total ownership of the facility."

A master of science degree in e-commerce already offered will be strengthened through the facility and is only one of three programs nationally to combine business and computer science. A master of science in bioinfomatics will offer a cross-disciplinary mix of biological and computer sciences to prepare graduates for the biotechnology industry. An undergraduate Honors program in globalization will explore the impact of technological advances worldwide.

"We believe the money that FedEx invested in this project was just that," Carter says. "It wasn't a gift. We believe this investment will pay off in the form of great projects that we can tackle there, as well as an enhanced curricula and student body from which we can recruit.

"To me, it is so important that any great city have a great university, and great universities aren't just academic in their presence in their community — they have a lot of presence in the area's businesses," Carter notes.

The future is now

"We have traction now," Phillips says of the Institute. "We have a partnership with a highly respected corporation that is known worldwide. We have people joining our advisory boards who are leaders in national and international digital and high-tech research."

Phillips says that as the digital headquarters of the Mid-South, the FTI will forever change the face of business, education, health care and many other industries.

"What we still have to do is get more people in Memphis excited about the project," Phillips says. "The more people we have come on board, the stronger the FTI will be. And in the end, we can do what MIT does."

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