Pearse Lyons talks about Kentucky’s opportunities

There’s no zealot like a convert, and when it comes to believing in Kentucky’s potential, there’s none like Pearse Lyons.

The energetic Irishman, who moved to Lexington three decades ago and built his Alltech nutrition supplement company into a global giant, has a few thoughts about how the future could shine brighter on his new Kentucky home.

Lyons shared some of those thoughts Thursday with the Lexington Forum, telling the monthly gathering of business folks that the keys are education, innovation and building on Kentucky’s existing strengths and resources.

Lyons hopes to showcase many of those resources next fall, when his company sponsors the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.

But he’s getting a head start in Britain this month at the Alltech FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championships, Aug. 25-30.

More than 60,000 spectators and 150 competitors from 32 nations are expected to attend the games at Windsor Castle. One thing they’ll find, a short walk from the arena, is a Kentucky oasis.

The Alltech Kentucky Village, a tented area inside a white-plank fence, will give visitors a literal taste of Kentucky: burgoo, hot Browns, Maker’s Mark bourbon, Dippin’ Dots ice cream and, of course, Alltech’s Kentucky Ale and Bourbon Barrel Ale.

Everett McCorvey from the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program will direct a vocal ensemble. There also will be displays promoting Kentucky tourism and products.

Muhammad Ali and Pearse Lyons announced creation of the Alltech Muhammad Ali Center

Muhammad Ali and Pearse Lyons announced creation of the Alltech Muhammad Ali Center Global Education and Charitable Fund in Lexington in May. Alltech Photo

Lyons is taking Muhammad Ali to Windsor, thanks to the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Center Global Education and Charitable Fund. After that, Lyons and Ali head to Dublin for a fund-raising dinner and a visit to the Irish town one of Ali’s great-grandfathers left for America in the mid-1800s.

Lyons said he gets dizzy sometimes thinking about how an Irish lad of modest means could grow up to earn a Ph.D. and create a company with annual revenues of $500 million and a 35 percent profit margin — much less hobnob with people such as Ali and Queen Elizabeth II.

It all came down to education, entrepreneurship and taking advantage of opportunities. The same formula can work for Kentucky, too, he told the Lexington Forum.

Lyons noted that Kentucky and Ireland have many similarities. They’re both beautiful, mainly rural places with about 4 million people, rich heritage and a history of seeing their smart young people leave for opportunities elsewhere.

Ireland reversed its fortunes by focusing on education and innovation, and Kentucky can do the same.

This time of economic transition is when Kentucky should look for new opportunities and new ways of doing things, Lyons said.

For example, Kentucky should neither ignore its rich coal reserves, nor expect to continue mining and burning coal the old way, given environmental concerns and climate change. Instead, he said, Kentucky should be at the forefront of figuring out how to make coal more valuable “within the new rules and regulations.”

One way to do that is by focusing on carbon-capture research. Lyons thinks one solution could be algae — the fast-growing slime that produces two-thirds of the world’s oxygen by soaking up carbon dioxide.

Another opportunity is aquaculture, because Kentucky has enormous reserves of fresh water, much of it underground.

“Fish is an incredible opportunity for Kentucky,” he said. “Where the poultry industry is today, the fish industry will be tomorrow.”

Algae and aquaculture are two of many things Alltech researchers are working on.

“The possibilities for innovation are enormous,” Lyons said. But innovation requires education.

Lyons said Kentucky universities must develop programs that will retain the state’s own students and attract those from elsewhere. And he challenged Kentucky businesses to invest in education.

He said Alltech donates laboratories to schools and pays graduate students to earn Ph.D.s, do research for the company and stay in Kentucky after graduation.

While looking for new opportunities, Kentucky should continue developing signature industries such as bourbon and horses that already have infrastructure and international reputations. For example, one thing that led Alltech to develop its popular Bourbon Barrel Ale was Kentucky’s ready supply of used bourbon barrels.

Along with more focus on education, Lyons said, Kentucky needs leaders.

“The leader’s job is to bring uncertainty out and certainty in,” he said. “That’s what our state needs. Because in 20 years’ time the whole world is going to change. Which way? I’m not sure. But it’s going to change. And please God it will change, because therein lies our opportunity.”

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