Contest, center hope to boost KY entrepreneurs

July 26, 2010

There are three basic approaches to building business in Kentucky: attract ’em, keep ’em, grow ’em. Success requires all three. But over the years, state officials often have focused so much attention on the first two that they have neglected the third.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. has worked on that third approach since 1968, helping home-grown entrepreneurs create more than 10,000 jobs in its 22-county Appalachian service area.

Now the corporation’s efforts are turning it up a notch. Kentucky Highlands is opening a new business- incubation center this fall beside its headquarters near London, and it is sponsoring a contest for Kentucky entrepreneurs who have big ideas that could become successful companies.

“We’re hoping to bring some of these entrepreneurs out of the woodwork,” said Jim Carroll, executive director of the new center.

Kentucky Highlands announced six winners last week among 47 entrants in the first phase of its Big Idea Competition. Each winner received a $1,000 cash prize based on a one-page outline of the idea and a business model.

Kentucky entrepreneurs and small business are now being solicited to enter the second phase of the contest. That involves submitting a three- to six-page executive summary of an idea along with business, marketing, sales and financial plans. Three winners of this phase will receive $2,500 cash prizes. Entries are due Aug. 20.

The final phase will involve oral presentations this fall. The winner will receive $10,000 cash and 12 months of free rent in the Kentucky Highlands Business Innovation and Growth Center. Two runners-up will receive prizes of $5,000 and $2,500 and offers of free work space in the center for six months.

For more information, go to Kentucky Highlands’ Web site.

Winners of the competition’s first phase were a diverse group:

■ Awesome Labs of Lexington has created technology to turn store windows into interactive touch-screen displays.

■ B2 Solutions of Somerset has developed software to manage documentation required for new products to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

■ Monumental Builders of Jamestown makes a patented product that uses recycled materials to create a cultured-stone concrete block system for construction.

■ NuForm Thermal Management of Sadieville turns coal ash into a ceramic material that can replace chemical flame retardants in insulation.

■ Olde Kentucky Logs of Corbin makes concrete wall facing molded to look like 150-year-old construction logs.

■ of Versailles has developed Web-based software to match health-care facilities with qualified workers.

“We were glad to see that diversity,” Carroll said. “We all tend to gravitate toward techy-type things, and it was good to see that (the judges) saw that more traditional types of business have an opportunity to be successful and create jobs.”

The competition, which is open to entrepreneurs or businesses with 20 or fewer employees, is being judged by a panel of investors, economic development professionals and representatives of the contest’s supporters. Among those supporters are the state Cabinet for Economic Development, Kentucky Science & Technology Corp., Lexington Venture Club, Silicon Hollow Association and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

Among the criteria that judges were asked to consider was each idea’s ability to create jobs in Kentucky and generate revenue from outside the state. Those factors have always been a key to Kentucky Highlands’ approach to entrepreneurship.

The new-business incubator hopes to help do that by providing office space, technical infrastructure and mentoring to entrepreneurs. The 9,700-square-foot center will rent private suites, cubicles and “rough” work space, and it has two dry labs and two wet labs.

In addition to providing start-up companies with office space, printers, fax machines and other technical support, the center offers mentoring from experienced staff members and a network of volunteer professionals in the region.

“Entrepreneurship is the future of our economy,” Carroll said. “We have to focus on growing local companies.”

Battery deal could be ‘another Toyota’

April 13, 2009

This could be huge.

In fact, an industry consortium’s selection of Kentucky to become the research, development and manufacturing center for the next generation of high-tech automobile batteries could be the most important news for this state’s economy in a generation.

At the announcement Monday in Frankfort, Gov. Steve Beshear and other officials compared it to Toyota’s decision more than two decades ago to base its U.S. operations in Kentucky.

The comparison seems appropriate. Maybe even be an understatement.

Toyota did much more than build a high-tech assembly plant and other facilities that now employ 8,300 people. It created synergies with other nearby auto plants that attracted more than 100 suppliers and created a big part of Kentucky’s advanced manufacturing economy.

More than 80,000 people in Kentucky now work at making the current generation of petroleum-fueled vehicles. It’s clear, though, that the vehicles of the future will run partially, if not completely, on batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries, with their small size and long life, have enabled big advances in consumer electronics. The next big thing in automobile manufacturing will be figuring out how to make batteries that can efficiently run vehicles.

President Obama has pledged $2 billion toward figuring out how to put more energy-efficient hybrid vehicles on the road.

The National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries, a consortium of more than 50 battery-making companies and related groups, is seeking some of that federal money to build a $600 million advanced battery manufacturing facility in Hardin County.

Construction would create 1,500 jobs, and the facility would eventually employ 2,000. And, like with Toyota, the possibilities for suppliers and associated manufacturers could create many thousand more jobs.

The battery plant will have close ties to the nation’s first high-tech battery research and development laboratory in Lexington, which Beshear announced last week. The lab is a joint venture of the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

In describing the significance of this project Monday, the Toyota comparison wasn’t the only one officials used.

They likened what the battery industry wants to do in Kentucky to what the semiconductor industry did in Austin, Texas, beginning in the late 1980s.

Like the battery industry now, the American semiconductor industry then was losing its edge to Asian competitors. The industry formed the SEMATECH consortium to focus research, development and manufacturing efforts. SEMATECH was a big success, and it did wonders for Austin’s economy and high-tech image.

Battery innovation and development isn’t just key to the future of automobile manufacturing, said Kris Kimel, president of the non-profit Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. There’s an urgent need for better batteries to store energy from all kinds of sources for all kinds of uses.

“Battery technology and the quest to develop better batteries is a key aspect of the whole emerging alternative energy market,” Kimel said. “It’s an excellent place for Kentucky to play.”

The history of economic development in Kentucky has often been one of missed opportunities, of selling the state short. Rarely have Kentucky’s leaders recognized the next big thing and successfully gone after it.

That’s why former Gov. Martha Layne Collins’ pursuit of Toyota two decades ago was such a milestone, and why Beshear’s pursuit of this deal could be another.

This effort puts Kentucky at the center of research, innovation and development for an entire industry trying to solve one of technology’s biggest challenges.

For a state hoping to be a player in the 21st century economy, this could be huge.