Thursday, Apr 14, 2022

Ballad Health, East Tennessee State University Research Corporation partner to create Appalachian Highlands Rural Innovation and Entrepreneurship Alliance

A new venture between Ballad Health and the East Tennessee State University Research Corporation is expected to bolster regional efforts to enhance economic growth in the Appalachian Highlands, while also creating a national portal for rural health innovation.

The new Appalachian Highlands Rural Innovation and Entrepreneurship Alliance will coordinate multiple local and national areas of research and idea development, particularly impacting the delivery of healthcare, through surveilling efforts, accelerating early-stage development, translating research into business opportunities and identifying scalable opportunities for investment, ultimately reshaping the overall economy, health and well-being of the region.

“We are bringing together the expertise, energy and know-how of the Appalachian Highlands together with a shared vision and vision around innovation and entrepreneurship,” said David Golden, the CEO of the ETSU Research Corporation and Allen and Ruth Harris Chair of Excellence in the East Tennessee State University College of Business and Technology. “Aligning existing efforts like the STRIVE program and Rugged Buc Lab with the Ballad Health Innovation Center and the ETSU Research Corporation allows us to leverage the strengths the region provides.”

“When we created Ballad Health, we made a commitment that this new organization would leverage the regional strength of the Appalachian Highlands, reaching across all our communities in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to enhance opportunities to turn good ideas into thriving businesses and economic opportunity,” said Ballad Health Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine. “This center will not only leverage good local ideas into business opportunities for the region, but it will attract ideas from all over the world, which will support the enhancement of healthcare delivery and innovation, while also creating an ecosystem for those transformative ideas to grow and be put into practice all over the world.”

“Idea development and translation to business is important, but not entirely possible without capital,” Levine added. “So as a part of this announcement, we are also creating a regional investment fund, seeded with $1 million from Ballad Health specifically for rural health, which will be open to other investors and entrepreneurs interested in innovation within the Appalachian Highlands. As the Alliance grows, we expect other investors and organizations will look to grow additional capabilities in diverse areas such as digital media, biopharma and data analytics.”

The announcement comes on the heels of the creation of several centers at ETSU created through partnerships between the university and Ballad Health, including:

  • The Center for Rural Health and Research at ETSU, which, within two years of its creation, has received grant funding and a national designation as a rural health research center – alongside institutions such as the University of North Carolina and the University of Kentucky as leaders in rural health research
  • The Ballad Health Strong BRAIN Institute and Center for Trauma Informed Care
  • The Appalachian Highlands Center for Nursing Advancement
  • More than $30 million annually in partnerships for the delivery of medical care and services throughout the region

Examples of opportunity in the innovation space related to rural health include:

  1. Development of an incubator for viable innovation in healthcare services, technology or programs
  2. The operationalization of concepts, refining them from ideas to reality
  3. Utilization of existing seed funding and venture capital to invest in opportunities which will enhance growth of the businesses and provide a return to investors

“The East Tennessee Research Corporation and Ballad Health are uniquely positioned to make meaningful advances in rural health,” Golden said. “In fact, it is already happening from within the university, from innovation occurring inside Ballad Health and from ideas being developed by people throughout the region and nation. This forward-leaning effort creates both a pathway for translation of ideas to execution and a mechanism for the creation of economic growth for our region and regional investment into these incredible ideas. This Alliance will help unlock engagement and participation from forward-thinking businesses and people to create the momentum that will drive our region into the future.”

“For some time, we have had the expertise and vision for this level of innovation, said Dr. Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University. “Now, along with the creation of the Center for Rural Health and Research and the ETSU Research Corporation, ETSU has implemented the framework to organize and operationalize this work. Our university is already home to one of the nation’s leading health science centers in America, with a nationally ranked medical school serving rural America, a nationally ranked College of Public Health, Tennessee’s largest public nursing school, an innovative pharmacy school and other programs which, coupled with Ballad Health, create the perfect environment to encourage the development of ideas, to nurture and invest in them, and to enjoy the prosperity they will bring to the region when they are realized.”

“Ultimately, the Appalachian Highlands Rural Innovation and Entrepreneurship Alliance will result in an interactive rural cooperative, and as the alliance grows, we expect new companies to anchor their operations in the Appalachian Highlands as they take advantage of the unique environment to create life- and industry-changing equipment, systems and technologies,” said Tony Keck, executive vice president of system transformation at Ballad Health. “The resulting economic benefit will support the multiple regional efforts to grow the economy, while providing an investment return for those in the region who believe in investing in the region.”

“We believe in the Appalachian Highlands,” Levine said. “And that’s why we are investing in the ideas, entrepreneurship and people of our region. We certainly believe as the Appalachian Highlands Regional Investment Fund is developed as a part of this initiative, more forward-looking people and businesses will choose to invest alongside us to create an attractive source of capital for businesses elsewhere that need the ecosystem we are creating alongside the capital. It’s a great thesis, and I believe the ETSU Research Corporation, along with the Ballad Health Innovation Center and Ballad Ventures, will demonstrate it can attract the investment and grow the value of the fund for those who invest. The ultimate result will be economic opportunity for people in our region as jobs are created, prosperity is enhanced and people from all over the nation see the Appalachian Highlands as a logical place to locate and invest, as so many already have.”

“The reality of our situation right now, is that regional employers aren’t just competing with each other for top workforce talent – we’re competing with businesses all over the United States,” said Bo Wilkes, managing director of the Ballad Health Innovation Center and president of Ballad Ventures. “We have a rich culture and history, excellent schools and healthcare and low cost of living, and now, we’re going to have the entrepreneurial alliance that draws in some of the best minds in the country. By all rights, the Appalachian Highlands should be a top destination for workers and families.”

The Appalachian Highlands Rural Innovation and Entrepreneurship Alliance is expected to organize throughout 2022, as it expands its leadership and invests in its first opportunities.

“This region is home to Tennessee’s oldest town, and it’s the birthplace of country music,” Golden added. “World class in a rural setting is our goal, and already, great things have always started here – this is the next one. We want the rest of America to eventually see the opportunities for innovation within the Appalachian Highlands.”

“We have the opportunity to become the Silicon Valley of rural healthcare,” Golden added.

About the ETSU Research Corporation

The ETSU Research Corporation formed to connect, convene and create world-class research and innovation at the speed of business. We are a beacon for amplifying research, art, innovation, workforce development and entrepreneurialism as well as regional development through collaboration and partnerships. Learn more at

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