CREST initiative gets grant to energize workforce development, economic growth through regional cross-sector collaborations

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1 million grant to an initiative born of the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center, the Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization and key regional stakeholders. The groundbreaking CREST (Coalition Responsible for Equitable Skills Training) initiative is designed to connect industry, academic and community partners to craft workforce development programs that stimulate economic progress for all. 

The Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) grant program from NSF bolsters emerging technology fields by supporting opportunities that give cohorts of diverse learners the skills they need to succeed. Over the next two years, this $1 million grant will enable the CREST initiative to pilot, state and region-wide, the CREST Biotechnician Bootcamp—a training and certification program that will turn its participants into a nationally certified biotechnician workforce in 90 days. 

“The receipt of this grant emphasizes the commitment of Vanderbilt, through the Wond’ry and Tech Transfer and in collaboration with our CREST partners, to foster shared economic growth and prosperity in all of our communities,” said Charleson Bell, director of entrepreneurship and biomedical innovation for the Wond’ry.  

“With a focus on biotechnician training, we are strategically positioning ourselves to play a pivotal role in the creation of an inclusive biomedical innovation ecosystem. This is not just about creating jobs; it’s about creating opportunities that will elevate lives by affording our community members upward economic mobility while transforming our region into a beacon of innovation and inclusivity.” 

Bell noted three primary regional partners backing the CREST initiative: the Urban League of Middle Tennessee, focusing on diverse community recruitment; the Tennessee Coalition for Health Science and BioSTEM, driving industry-centric recruitment; and the Tennessee Board of Regents, spearheading statewide deployment of CREST workforce programs. 

Tennessee has renowned health care employment ecosystem, but its benefits haven’t reached everyone equally. CREST will work to address the resultant socioeconomic disparities by providing biotech companies across the region with qualified local workers. 

“While our initial target sector is training biotechnicians in Tennessee, our hope is that a proven CREST model can be adopted by other areas of our country—adapted to the specific workforce needs of these regions—and guided principally by local communities to promote shared prosperity,” said George Wilson, assistant director of new venture programs for CTTC.  

The CREST initiative received another boost recently when the National Institutes of Health and other institutions awarded $12 million to Vanderbilt and other consortium partners, including the University of Louisville, Jackson State University and George Mason University, to establish the Mid-South Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH). REACH aims to bring basic science discoveries and biomedical innovations to market by forging an inclusive biomedical innovation ecosystem.  

CREST’s fellowship programs will cover training costs for participants who commit to two years of service with regional start-ups, corporations and biotech partners who want to establish operations in the region, solidifying a framework that meets the critical needs of the community and industry while benefiting all involved. 

The CREST initiative, underpinned by Vanderbilt’s collaboration with regional partners, promises a transformative approach to workforce development in Tennessee and the Mid-south. By bridging disparities and emphasizing education and economic growth, this collaboration will boost broad prosperity and pave the way for a more inclusive and innovative future.