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Coalition for equitable skills training a foundational piece for Mid-South ‘Silicon Valley’

Excerpted from the June 2023 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

Two Vanderbilt University pioneers are spearheading an organization known as the Coalition Responsible for Equitable Skills Training, or CREST, and are hoping their efforts will help build a solid foundation for an even more ambitious undertaking — the creation and solidification of a Mid-South ecosystem rivaling Silicon Valley — with a distinctive emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“Back in 2021 under the American Rescue Plan there was a Build Back Better regional challenge,” recalls George Wilson, assistant director of the New Ventures Programs in the Vanderbilt Center for Technology Transfer and Innovation. Vanderbilt at the time proposed a program called “Middle TN Lifeworks,” focused on a biotech innovation ecosystem and workforce and economic development. “It was not ultimately awarded to Nashville, but we made a lot of connections around workforce development,” says Wilson.

Then, in the summer of 2022, Wilson and Charleson S. Bell, PhD, research assistant professor in Vandy’s Biomedical Engineering Laboratory and director of Entrepreneurship and Biomedical Innovation for The Wond’ry innovation center, were both chosen to be part of a group that attended the Harvard Young American Leaders program. During that same time period a second grant proposal was submitted to the NSF Engines program focused on biomanufacturing economy, workforce, and economic development. The funding result for that application is still unknown.

The Harvard group included a diverse collection of Nashville leaders from a variety of professional backgrounds. “As a framework, we talked about finding ways to best support a life science/economic cluster akin to Michael Porter’s work at Harvard on economic cluster analysis,” Wilson continues. “We did not have workforce development [as a focus] per se going into it, but after looking at case studies and other curricula at Harvard, the team settled on CREST.”

In short, says Bell, who is also Mid-Soth I-Corps hub director, CREST “brings all aspects of the ecosystem together to support equitable workforce development.” At present, he says, the fledgling program is essentially still a framework rather than a fully functioning program.

Excerpted from the June 2023 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can access the complete article and the entire issue here. Other practitioners may subscribe to receive the UIEA newsletter at