Kentucky development leaders showcase high-tech innovation

September 30, 2014

gamersJason Mize, left, a partner in the Lexington company Really Big Spiders, demonstrated its online game, “Tales from the Strange Universe,” to Jonathan Gay of the Kentucky Innovation Network. Lexington is now a hotbed for electronic game development. Photo by Tom Eblen


Who knew Lexington was becoming a hotbed for electronic game development?

That’s exactly why Commerce Lexington and the state Cabinet for Economic Development brought seven freelance journalists here to visit with local game developers at Awesome Inc., the tech business incubator on Main Street.

At a reception Tuesday, they were to meet with other local business leaders, including Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions, the giant fan company.

Earlier in the day, some of the journalists toured Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics, a new program that focuses on data science applications. Others went to Morehead State University to see the Space Science Center. Later this week, most will be covering the annual Idea Festival in Louisville.

“We just wanted to show them that from small business to big you can do it here in Lexington,” said Gina Greathouse, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president for economic development.

Lexington has seven full-fledged companies developing electronic and online games and several programmers and artists who work on them part-time, said John Meister. He is a board member of RunJumpDev, a local organization that helps game developers network and promote their products.

Meister also is a partner in one of those companies, Super Soul. After working 10 years as a software engineer, he teamed up with artist Richie Hoagland to develop the Xbox game Compromised in 2012. Their company will soon release Speak Easy, a 1920s-themed fighting game for PlayStation 4.

Meister said game development has been growing in Lexington because many technology workers play games and become interested in making them. Lexington’s low cost of living helps, because it is much cheaper to develop games here than in many other cities with large high-tech communities.

While he wasn’t that interested in gaming, Terry Troy, a Cleveland-based journalist who writes for Scientific American magazine, said he came away from the tour with many story ideas. He was especially impressed by Morehead’s Space Science Center, which has become a national leader in developing small space satellites for research.

“Kentucky is a state of dichotomies; you have the Creation Museum and then over in Morehead is the cutting edge of satellite technology,” Troy said. “I knew there was a lot of innovation in the state, but you just don’t realize how much until you see it. I’m impressed.”

Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014


Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen


MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don’t aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.

But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.

One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center’s control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world’s biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.

“This is a different kind of call center,” Kimel said.

Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead’s already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.

He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn’t it be done in Kentucky?

“We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students,” he said. “But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC set up a lab in California’s Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.

They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.

KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.

Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.

When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space’s zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space’s hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft,” Malphrus said. “There’s an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don’t even know what all the applications are yet.”

Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.

Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.

“We’re clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft,” Kimel said. “Our specialty is building small machines quickly.”

Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.

Morehead’s space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master’s degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space’s work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.

Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it’s not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky’s largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.

Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.

“This is not just about education; we’re growing a new industry here,” Kimel said. “If we don’t commercialize this technology, these students won’t stay here, because there won’t be opportunities for them.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn’t,” he added. “But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be.”

Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn’t the only answer for the region’s economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.

“Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people’s ideas,” Kimel said. “What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that’s where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


IBM retiree helped invent word processing in Lexington

April 21, 2014

140421WordProcessing001This IBM photo from June 1957 shows an early prototype of the MT/ST, the first word-processing machine, that Leon Cooper helped develop at IBM labs in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The project was later moved to Lexington, where the MT/ST was produced. Center, Cooper today with old office machines and the magnetic tape cartridge used by MT/ST. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, An IMB marketing photo for MT/ST from the mid-1960s.


Leon Cooper was watching Jeopardy! earlier this year when an answer caught his attention: “In the 1960s, this firm introduced the first word processor, the MT/ST, based on its Selectric typewriter.”

Cooper, 86, knew the question better than anyone. It was “What is IBM?”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0014But it had been years since the Lexington man had reflected on the fact that he and several other IBM engineers invented electronic word processing, a technology now so common and pervasive that it is hard to imagine modern society without it.

Fifty years ago — June 29, 1964 — IBM launched the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, or MT/ST, which was developed and manufactured in Lexington.

The machine’s launch made headlines in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Cooper has those clippings neatly preserved in a binder, along with his reports, patent documents and photos of prototypes.

IBM hired a young Jim Henson to make a short movie promoting the MT/ST. That quirky 1967 film, The Paperwork Explosion, provided an early glimpse at the creative genius whose Sesame Street Muppets would later help teach generations of children to read, count and get along with others.

Cooper was a mechanical engineer for IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1957 when his boss asked him to solve a big problem.

“When somebody sees a typewriter these days, they wonder, ‘How in the world did you correct anything?’ Well, the answer was you really didn’t,” Cooper said. “But the real answer was that the novice didn’t type. The only people who typed were professional typists.”

A good professional could type 90 words per minute with few errors. But if she — and virtually all typists in those days were women — needed to make multiple copies, it required several sheets of paper sandwiched with carbon paper. That slowed the process, because any mistakes had to be corrected on each copy.

Some punched-paper tape typewriters had been made since the 1930s, but they were better suited for form letters than general office use. Errors were hard to correct, and paper punch tape wasn’t reusable.

“Our mission was to capture the keystroke on a correctable medium that could produce multiple clean copies, because copying technology in those days was crude,” Cooper said.

The medium his team chose with was reusable magnetic tape with sprockets so it could be moved forward and backward. The first prototype used an input keyboard to record keystrokes on tape and store them in electrical relays. If the typist made a mistake, she simply backspaced and typed over it. The stored information could then be printed multiple times using a connected electric typewriter.

140421WordProcessing002“We didn’t know what all we could do until we got further along on the program,” Cooper said. “That we could do insertions and deletions and move things around and combine two tapes, names and addresses on one and messages on another.”

Early prototype machines used vacuum tubes until transistors became more reliable. Electronic memory was the major challenge, he said, because “storage was a big, clumsy thing in those days.”

Cooper and his project were moved to Lexington in 1958, where he worked with electrical engineers J.T. Turner and Donald Sims, among others. The IBM Selectric typewriter, introduced in 1961 with a keyboard capable of both input and output, helped make the MT/ST system commercially feasible.

“We called it power typing,” Cooper said. “We were not sophisticated enough to know what word processing was.”

In fact, IBM marketers would coin the term “word processing” when they began selling the MT/ST in 1964. The first model was the size of a small file cabinet, could store only 24,000 characters and printed 180 words per minute.

The MT/ST was expensive: $7,010 to $9,535, depending on optional features. “But I was told they sold the first year’s projection in a month,” Cooper said.

The MT/ST sold well into the 1970s, when it was replaced with typewriters using cassette tapes and then floppy disks. IBM introduced the personal computer in 1981 and the typewriter, an office fixture since the 1880s, was soon history.

Cooper retired from IBM in 1982 and started QED Medical, which makes headlamps for surgeons and other specialty lighting. His son, Ira Cooper, now runs the Lexington-based company.

“I really want to emphasize that this was a group effort,” Cooper said of IBM’s MT/ST project, which introduced the world to word processing. “But I was the first guy there.”

IBM hired a young Jim Henson to create this promotional film for the MT/ST in 1967. Henson would later create Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the other Muppets.

What did Code for America fellows think after month in Lexington?

March 3, 2014


Livien Yin, left, Erik Schwartz and Lyzi Diamond spent February in Lexington as Code for America fellows. Photo by Tom Eblen

Three young technologists spent February getting to know Lexington. They met with city employees, business people and non-profit leaders. They walked streets, rode along with code enforcement officers, held meetings in coffee houses and hosted happy hours with community activists. They spent “quality time” along Nicholasville Road. They ate a lot of local donuts.

On Saturday, Lyzie Diamond, Erik Schwartz and Livien Yin flew back to San Francisco, where they will work until mid-November creating technology tools that citizens can use to improve life in Lexington.

The three are on fellowships with Code for America, a nonprofit organization that calls itself the Peace Corps for Geeks. Lexington was selected this year as one of eight cities to host fellows, who also are working in Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

The fellows’ goal is to leverage technology to empower citizens to improve their communities. Lexington’s participation is supported financially by 30 local people, businesses and organizations, including Mayor Jim Gray, the Urban County Council and Commerce Lexington.

In addition to the fellows’ technology expertise, sponsors wanted their fresh eyes on Lexington’s progress, problems and potential.

“They can help us see what we maybe cannot see,” said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

At the end of their month here, I met with Diamond, Schwartz and Yin to find out what they discovered about Lexington, and what they hope to accomplish.

“It went by fast,” said Yin, adding that they plan to return to town for a couple of weeks in April. By then, the snow and ice will be gone and the pace of life will be quickened by Keeneland and other spring activities.

They will spend this week debriefing with the other Code for America fellows and narrowing the focus of their project. They will be listening for common themes and additional ideas from other fellows. But their thinking at this point is to focus on tools to improve communication and collaboration in Lexington.

They said “data visualization” tools could help Lexington residents better understand information already collected by many local organizations and government agencies.

“Sometimes it’s just shining a light on things that already exist and providing tutorials, examples to get people to use existing tools,” Diamond said. “Trying to find ways to get people excited about new things is one of the challenges of the fellowship.”

One example of such a tool is What’s My District?, which was developed by Open Lexington, a volunteer group of local technologists that is nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to more transparent government. To see that tool and others in development, visit its website:

Diamond, 24, is originally from New Jersey and also has lived in Hong Kong, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. Her expertise is digital map-making, and one of her favorite activities while in Lexington was teaching a group of Girl Scouts the basics of how to do it.

Yin, 24, is from Lincoln, Mass., studied art in college but learned technology skills after moving to San Francisco to pursue her interest in neighborhood-based urban revitalization.

Schwartz, 33, grew up in Albion, Mich., and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Since playing in Chicago rock bands, he has worked for several years developing web applications for businesses. His wife, Sarah Smith-Schwartz, is from Lexington.

All three said they enjoyed their time in Lexington. They were impressed by the amount of grassroots community improvement they saw, as well as the community spirit and strong personal networks.

“In every meeting we’ve had, the person we’re meeting with will mention a name of someone we already have met with or know and someone we haven’t met with yet,” Diamond said. “People are really connected to each other here, which is awesome. For a town of 300,000-plus, that’s impressive.”

“Lexington seems to be changing so fast,” Yin added. “I’m excited by the level of engagement that’s already happening.”

Whatever technology tools the three develop, they are likely to be geared toward small-scale action, because many Lexington neighborhoods are already engaged and tend to have different needs and issues.

“How can we help people have more impact, know about more stuff they care about and communicate with others more effectively?” Schwartz asked.

“So many connections happen by word-of-mouth and face-to-face interaction,” Diamond said. “We’re trying to find ways not to replace that but to boost it and facilitate it.”

Lexington has come a long way in just a few years

December 2, 2013

Lexington changed a lot between the time I went away to college in 1976 and returned in 1998. But I think it has changed even more profoundly since then.

The earlier changes were mostly physical — vast tracks of rural land turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Recent changes have been more about attitudes.

Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., talked about some of those attitudes in his interview with Tom Martin. They discussed how Lexington can attract innovative talent for the 21st-century economy.

Kimel understands the power of innovation and ideas better than anyone I know. If you haven’t read the interview yet, grab a highlighter and mark the attitudes he mentions.

Here are some I noted: Self-starter. Creative problem-solving. Imagination. Tolerance for risk and failure. Embracing diversity.

Lexington isn’t as open to new ideas as it needs to be, but it has made considerable progress. This city is less buttoned-down than it was just a few years ago, and that has made it a much more interesting place to live, work and play.

I don’t know why it happened, but I have a few hunches. One is that technology has empowered more people, making it easier for them to innovate and succeed. At the same time, social media has made it easier for them to connect with one another.

Technology has made the structures of Lexington power and influence younger and more diverse. People feel less pressure to conform, less need to seek “permission.” This is especially true in arts and culture, which are leading indicators of social and economic shifts.

131108Mural0025For example, consider the positive buzz created recently when a Brazilian artist was invited to paint a giant, psychedelic Abe Lincoln mural on a big blank wall downtown. It is an amazing piece of art, sure to become a Lexington icon.

Had that happened a decade or two ago, many of Lexington’s powers-that-be would have scoffed. Most likely, such a mural would never have happened at all.

The mere suggestion of it would have spawned high-level discussions where caution would have outweighed creativity. If anything at all resulted, it would have been a “safe” mural that would neither offend nor inspire anyone — perhaps a pretty field of horses, none of which would be blue.

A Lexington Tattoo Project in the 1990s? No way.

Lexington’s economic creativity can be found in low-rent office space all over town. For example, there are dozens of innovative technology companies such as Cirrus Mio, Medmovie and Float Money, plus biotech firms whose market niches are as hard to understand as their names are to pronounce. There are two tech startup incubators on Main Street, Awesome Inc. and Base 163.

Of course, all innovation isn’t high-tech. Sometimes, it’s simply looking around at what makes a place unique and wonderful and finding new ways to develop and market it. Alltech gets it. So do chef Ouita Michel and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” guys. The once-stodgy bourbon industry has become a hotbed of innovation, and business is booming as a result.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of new Lexington creativity:

Four young entrepreneurs wanted to start a craft brewery. But they didn’t just want to sell beer; they wanted to build community. Their West Sixth Brewery has been wildly successful by breaking all of the old “rules.”

Rather than locate in an affluent suburb, they bought an abandoned 1920s bread factory in a transitional northside neighborhood. An old-style developer would have bulldozed the factory and built a faux-fancy brewpub. Instead, these guys hired Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann, a master at turning old buildings into cool, functional spaces.

The once-abandoned factory, now called The Bread Box, houses West Sixth’s brewery and pub, plus other tenants including artist studios, a nonprofit bicycle shop, a coffee-roaster, a women’s roller derby team and a seafood restaurant.

Smithtown Seafood gets some of its fish from Food Chain, an urban agriculture nonprofit that raises them in tanks in the next room. Brewery waste is fed to the fish and fish waste fertilizes greens grown under artificial lights and served in the restaurant. Win, win, win.

The Bread Box is an example of innovative talent in action, and it creates the kind of community where innovative, talented people can see there is opportunity to realize their own dreams.  

Learning about code already pays off for one Lexington school

November 25, 2013

I recently wrote about the upcoming Computer Science Education Week and how a technology industry organization is encouraging every school to spend at least an hour the week of Dec. 9-15 introducing every student to the language of digital technology: code. Plans to do that have already paid off for one Lexington school., the non-profit group organizing the Hour of Code event, has awarded $10,000 to Southern Elementary School. The school’s planned activities include creating a life-size version of the popular cellphone game Angry Birds in the gymnasium Dec. 6 to get students excited about learning code basics the following week.

School officials plan to use the award money to buy equipment for the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) laboratory, said Lisa Deffendall, spokeswoman for the Fayette County Public Schools. She said was donating $10,000 to one school in every state, and Southern Elementary is Kentucky’s winner.




Hour of Code introduces new kind of literacy to schools

November 11, 2013

Americans have always understood the link between literacy and getting ahead. The better you could read and write the English language, the better your chances for success.

But in the 21st century, where virtually every aspect of life involves some kind of digital technology, there is a lot of economic opportunity for people who also have another kind of literacy: code.

Code is the foundation of computer science, the instructions that programmers use to get computers and other digital devices to do what they want them to do. Who will shape the future of a technology-driven global economy? The people who know how to write code.

That is the basic message of the nonprofit organization, which is sponsoring a initiative called the Hour of Code to bring a taste of basic code instruction to every school during Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 9-15.

So far, reports that more than 9,800 events for CSEWmore than 1.56 million students are planned that week in 141 countries. Students don’t have to have special math knowledge or aptitude to participate. They don’t even have to have a computer. For more information, go to:

One Lexington group that has embraced this initiative is Awesome Inc., an incubator for high-tech entrepreneurs. Its offices at 348 East Main Street have provided shared workspace for 50 startup companies over the past six years, as well as meeting and educational space. It also houses the Kentucky Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame.

Brian Raney, a co-founder of Awesome Inc., said about 10 volunteers from among the 15 companies now housed at the incubator plan to use curricula developed by to teach an hour of code instruction at 10 schools during that week.

Raney already has signed up Rockcastle County High School and four Fayette County public schools: Tates Creek High School, Dixie Magnet Elementary, the Learning Center at Linlee and the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy.

He said Awesome Inc. will accept five more schools on a first-come, first-served basis, with preference given to schools that include the entire student body in the program. The session will include hands-on exercises, including some actual programming for student groups that have computers. There is a $100 reservation fee to cover instructors’ expenses.

Schools interested in having Awesome Inc. facilitate their participation in the Hour of Code can apply at:

“I honestly think we’ll have a lot more demand than the 10 schools we can handle,” Raney said.

“The idea is to teach the basics of what coding is all about,” he said. “To learn to think like a programmer — logical thinking, problem-solving. Kids pick that up so fast.”

Raney sees the Hour of Code as a great way to interest young people in computer programming and the career opportunities it offers, which are becoming more abundant, varied and lucrative every day.

awesomeHis own interest in programming led him to start Apax Software, which designs websites and develops mobile applications, such as Keeneland’s new Race Day app for iPhone, iPad and Android.

Raney said that getting more people to learn code is key to growing Kentucky’s technology and entrepreneurial economies, which is a goal of Awesome Inc.

This summer, Awesome Inc. began offering a series of one-day “crash courses” in coding for web development and mobile apps. So far, 140 students —ranging in age from 9 to their mid-60s — have taken those classes, which cost $50 to $100. More information:

“Our goal is to teach 500 people to code by the summer of 2014,” he said.

Raney is especially excited about the Hour of Code program because it will show young people that while coding may be the language of today’s technology geniuses, you don’t have to be a genius to learn to write code.

“Software is running everything,” he said. “If you can understand how that software works and how to manipulate it, you’re going to be able to do so much. The people who learn how to code are going to shape the future.”

Alltech Symposium offers glimpse of the future of food production

May 27, 2013


José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, left, shaved ham as Lucas Montero served cheese to attendees at Alltech’s annual international symposium in Lexington on Tuesday. They represent Ibericos COVAP, a line of traditional Spanish gourmet products produced by a farmers’ co-op near Córdoba, Spain. Photo by Tom Eblen


I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington’s biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.

Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.

This year’s symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.

Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.

The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech’s approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.

This year’s symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.

Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world’s largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company’s needs.

Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.

The symposium’s theme this year was “Glimpse the future in 2020.” In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.

“Enough is enough,” the regulatory session’s thesis statement said. “If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation.”

Alltech thinks successful businesses won’t just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.

My favorite booth at the symposium’s World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers’ cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.

The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.

“We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area,” said the co-op’s director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.

Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.

Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.

This year’s symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech’s customers find value in the symposium’s educational sessions and networking opportunities.

“What we’re striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation,” said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. “There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together.”

Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.

The privately held company doesn’t release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.

Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.

Medmovie turns medical illustrations into animated apps

March 11, 2013

Richard Gersony was a pre-med student at Columbia University in New York City when he started drawing illustrations for the campus newspaper. Soon he faced a dilemma: which career path to choose?

“I was going toward medicine,” he said. “But I knew inside that what I was best at was making visuals, illustrating and creating art.”

Then a professor suggested he become a medical illustrator. After an internship and rigorous graduate program at the University of Michigan, Gersony moved to Lexington for a medical illustration job at the University of Kentucky. There he met his wife, Kim, who studied three- dimensional animation and interactive design.

MedMovieAfter eight years of training and work in Chicago and Baltimore, they returned to Lexington in 2000 and started Medmovie to take medical illustration into the digital world of online multimedia.

This past weekend in San Francisco, at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, Medmovie unveiled its newest product: an iPad application that explains how the heart works, its common problems and treatments.

CardioSmart Explorer will sell for $5.99 to the public through Apple’s online App Store. The American College of Cardiology, which sponsored development of the app, will give it to physician members.

This is the company’s third iPad app but the first sold to the public. Gersony said it represents an important step toward what he sees as the future of his company: developing educational tools that use the ever-growing library of cardiovascular multimedia imagery he and his staff are developing.

The Gersonys and their three employees all have master’s degrees and other advanced training in science, medical illustration and animation. Their job is to take complex medical information and translate it into simple, understandable visual stories.

“The idea is you are making a visual decision between highly realistic and symbolic, then you are putting it in a storyline that’s understandable,” Richard Gersony said. “We want people to have that visual aha moment: ‘Wow! Now I understand.'”

There are many markets for such stories: educating and making sales to physicians and other health care professionals; explaining complex medical information to juries; and helping patients and their families understand medical problems, procedures and treatments.

For example, a physician could use an iPad with the CardioSmart Explorer app to sketch out a heart patient’s problem and explain how it will be treated. Then the illustration can be instantly emailed to the patient for future reference.

Medmovie’s newest staff member is Pina Kingman, who moved here from Vancouver, British Columbia, after graduating from the University of Toronto’s prestigious biomedical communications program. Her background in cell biology and animation will help Medmovie develop animations to show how drugs work in the body. They could be used to create educational tools for pharmaceutical salespeople, physicians and patients.

Gersony, who grew up in the New York City suburbs, said he and his wife did a national search when deciding where to start Medmovie. Lexington had an edge, because they had met here and Kim Gersony’s mother lived in Frankfort.

In the end, though, they chose Lexington for a variety of reasons that have also attracted other small, high-tech startups: a good talent pool; a central location with decent airline service; attractive and reasonably priced downtown office space; local universities; and a good quality of life.

Medmovie’s offices were in the circa 1913 Fayette National Bank Building at Main and Market streets until recently, when the company had to relocate so Lexington’s first skyscraper can be converted into a 21c Museum Hotel.

Gersony was able to find even nicer quarters around the corner: a loft-like space in another former bank, a circa 1924 building at the corner of West Short and Market streets. The offices have big windows with a commanding view of the old Fayette County Courthouse square.

Gersony said Lexington’s low cost of living, vibrant arts community and planned improvements downtown such as Town Branch Commons will make it easier for Medmovie to attract top talent as the company grows.

“Lexington is a fantastic size for a company like ours,” he said. “Almost all of us here can ride our bikes to work. The kind of space and the costs here are way, way lower than San Francisco and New York.”


Awesome Inc.’s Demo Day gives a look into local business future

September 10, 2012

There are basically two kinds of economic development strategies: import new businesses and jobs from elsewhere, or grow your own. Kentucky’s leaders have long focused on the first strategy, with a lot more misses than hits.

Awesome Inc. — a startup-business accelerator in downtown Lexington run by a bunch of smart, young techies — works with local investors and entrepreneurs to create home-grown businesses and jobs.

Last Wednesday, I joined about 100 other people at Awesome Inc.’s offices for Demo Day to watch five groups of young, local entrepreneurs make presentations about the companies they are working to create.

Before the presentations, Nick Seguin, a former manager of entrepreneurship for the Kauffman Foundation, discussed why this work is important for both communities and individuals.

“If we want more jobs, startups are what matter,” Seguin said, noting that most net new jobs in America are created by businesses less than six years old. But, he cautioned, “Success is built on a lot of failures.”

Entrepreneurship requires more than individual effort, he said. It needs a supportive community with the right kind of mind-set, funding, business services and employees.

The five companies that presented last week are all trying to harness online or mobile technology to create profitable new ways of solving problems or adding value.

Three of the teams were chosen earlier this year for an intense 14-week development program. In return for office space, a little seed money and a lot of advice, Awesome Inc. ( and its investors get a small stake in each company, a common model for such accelerator organizations.

TagaPet is developing a pet tag system that uses electronics, including GPS and mobile phone technology, to reunite lost pets with their owners. Michael Ward said he and his two business partners love animals, and their idea grew out of that passion — an important motivator for many entrepreneurs.

Tags would be sold through pet stores and veterinarians, and customers then pay a monthly subscription fee for online tracking services. While a competitor already offers a similar product, Ward said he thinks there is room for more players in a nation with millions of pets.

Rate My Rental  is a Web site that its developers hope to launch in Lexington at the end of the year to let college students rate properties where they have lived as a guide to future renters. So far, they have gathered listings for 800 properties and 400 reviews of them from former tenants, partner Sam Blake said.

The company’s business model allows landlords to list a property on the site for free, then pay 10 percent of the first month’s rent if it is rented through the site. Blake and his two business partners, all University of Kentucky students, developed the idea to help others avoid the rental nightmares they experienced.

Fanbouts is a Web site being developed to aggregate fan-generated sports content — videos, photos, tweets, etc. Partner Jim Wombles said the site would make money through premium subscriptions and advertising.

Presentations also were made by an “alumni” team, which had been through Awesome Inc.’s program earlier, and an “associate” team that has ties to Awesome Inc. investors.

Crowded is a mobile app developed by an alumni team that allows fans at professional baseball games to use their smart phones to play trivia games and participate in predict-the-play contests at the stadium. The app is now in beta testing. The company would make money from advertising.

Crambu, the associate team, seemed to be furthest along. It provides an electronic platform for hotels to collect feedback and requests from guests, who use their own smart phones or iPads furnished by the hotel.

Partner David Booth said an initial version of the software has been in testing in three hotels in Kentucky and California, and the latest version will soon roll out to 11 hotels in several states. Hotels pay $1 per room per month for the service.

Will all of these companies succeed? Probably not. Will some of them? Maybe.

With the right culture and support, Seguin said Lexington entrepreneurs can develop the companies of the future, just as Kentuckians developed such success stories as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Alltech.

“It doesn’t need to just happen in Boston, Austin, Boulder or the Bay,” he said.

Awesome Inc. founder Brian Raney put it more bluntly: “Step 1 is do something. Step 2 is keep going. Most people get lost at Step 1.”

A success in Silicon Valley, but still in Lexington

February 20, 2012

After five years in California working for Cypress Semiconductor, Alan Hawse decided in 1996 that he wanted to move back home to Lexington.

The computer chip maker didn’t want to lose Hawse, so it created a research and development facility in Lexington for him to run. Still, Hawse figured that his climb up the corporate ladder was over.

If you want to be a player in Silicon Valley, you have to be in Silicon Valley, right? Not necessarily.

In 2003, Hawse was made vice president of information technology. Last February, he was put in charge of the company’s software-design applications. This month, he was promoted to executive vice president of software development.

Hawse, 43, is now one of a dozen top executives of Cypress, a $3.5 billion company that is one of the world’s leading makers of programmable chips. He oversees about 250 software engineers working in this country, India, China, Turkey and Ukraine.

Hawse plans to create a software-design unit in Lexington, too, “as soon as I find the right person to run it.” That would add about 10 jobs to Cypress’s office at the corner of Main and Mill streets, where about 40 engineers design chips.

“Cypress likes Lexington,” said Hawse, who has degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky and Georgia Tech. “We attract good people who do good work, and the cost to the company is reasonable.”

For the moment, though, Hawse has bigger tasks on his plate. He said software problems last year delayed the introduction of Cypress’s TrueTouch Gen 4 chip, which brought a new level of precision to touchscreens used in smartphones and many other devices made by such companies as Samsung, Apple and Sony.

That delay caused Cypress’s stock price to take a hit, costing shareholders millions of dollars. “Now, it’s my responsibility to fix,” Hawse said. “It was a crazy year. This year is going to be crazy, too. It’s amazing intellectual stimulation. Everything is new, and the stakes are very high. But I’m an engineer; I’m good at putting stuff together and making it work.”

Software development is essential to Cypress because its chips are programmable. In addition to touchscreens, those chips are used to control such things as touch buttons on appliances and computer peripherals that work through USB connections.

Programmable chips are a big, global business — and getting bigger all the time. People are always creating new uses for chips, as Hawse did when he sought a solution to a problem in his back yard.

Hawse, his wife, Jill, and their two children live in Scott County. Elkhorn Creek runs behind their property, and they never know when the water might be rising so much that it could flood their barn. So, Hawse connected a Cypress chip to a water-pressure sensor to measure the water level and display it online. Now, he can log onto a Web site from anywhere and check the creek’s level.

That has come in handy because Hawse spends a lot of time traveling around the world.

“I spent 100 nights in a hotel last year, which isn’t fun, but it’s part of the job,” he said.

Hawse figures Lexington is a better place to do his new job than at company headquarters in San Jose, Calif. For one thing, this time zone is more convenient for reaching Cypress employees in many other parts of the world at convenient times.

Still, Hawse marvels at his good fortune, and at the changes in business and technology that allow him to be a successful engineer and top executive at one of the world’s top technology companies, yet still get to work in his hometown.

It’s also nice, he adds, to still come to work most days wearing jeans, running shoes and a sweatshirt. And be able to keep a bicycle outside his office so he can squeeze in a 20-mile ride at lunch on a pretty day.

“It’s jaw-droppingly amazing when you think about it,” Hawse said. “I drive down Newtown Pike every day through the amazingly beautiful place where we live, and when I walk though these doors, I’m in Silicon Valley. The ability we have to hire good people here and play with the big boys is amazing.” founder planning his next steps

February 13, 2012

When Drew Curtis started, he was a 26-year-old smart aleck who thought there was money to be made by collecting the world’s funniest and weirdest news stories on one Web site and letting readers comment on them.

Now, Curtis is a 39-year-old smart aleck looking for bigger opportunities.

Not that he plans to change Fark and its often-crude brand of humor. Far from it. The site gets bigger and more successful all the time, Curtis said.

Fark now gets 56 million page views a month, said Curtis, the company’s sole owner. Revenues from advertising, merchandise, premium subscriptions and conference generate enough income to support 10 employees in addition to Curtis, his wife and their three young children.

“We’re operating at only about 10 percent of what the full potential is,” he said.

But the Lexington native, who lives in Versailles, has ambitions to become a deal-maker, connecting other Internet entrepreneurs and helping them turn crazy ideas into profitable reality.

“I really like Fark, but it’s not a billion-dollar idea,” Curtis said. “I want to help people with 95 percent of a good idea achieve the other 5 percent. My great strength is that I see patterns in stuff.”

Curtis is now in his third of five semesters in the prestigious Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA program, a joint venture of New York’s Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. “You have these two massively different ideologies, and you get flavors from both of them,” he said of the program.

Why get a master’s degree in business administration? “It fills in the gaps,” Curtis said. “Besides, it removes certain questions from the table when you propose crazy ideas. Like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?'”

While Curtis wants to branch out, he has no plans to leave Central Kentucky.

“I don’t think there’s anything I would fix about the place, to be honest,” he said of living here.

But over lunch at Stella’s Deli on Jefferson Street, Curtis was frank about some things he would fix about Central Kentucky as a place for technology entrepreneurs.

The biggest problem, he said, is the lack of enough venture capital.

“There are a lot of talented people with good ideas, but the funding environment is really weak,” he said. “If a (startup) company got traction, they wouldn’t know what to do next.”

Curtis funded Fark on his own, but it took 13 years to build the company to what it is today. That’s much too slow for entrepreneurs with ideas big enough to shape the global business landscape.

Many Kentucky investors want a controlling interest in companies they put their money into, Curtis said, and that isn’t attractive to entrepreneurs with the best ideas.

“They’re not doing it wrong on purpose,” he said of investors. “There’s just an experience gap.”

Many Internet startups have died because investors pushed them to grow too quickly, Curtis said, adding that could have happened to Fark had investors been pushing him for quick returns.

“There’s a reason why most Internet companies with financial backing last no longer than five years,” he said.

Curtis said that creating Fark has given him a good sense for how to succeed online. It is different than most people imagine — even good business people.

For one thing, he said, companies must learn that using social media is more of an art than a science.

“You can’t successfully develop a social-media strategy because they don’t exist,” he said. “Post stuff that’s good. Done!”

New media, like old media, is a reflection of what consumers want, and that changes every day. For example, you can’t make a video go viral on the Internet.

“The trick is knowing what to do when it happens,” he said.

One thing is to request a response from viewers to keep the wave of attention going.

Curtis said Fark has been successful for the same reason The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been: they both contextualize news and highlight stories people care about.

“Putting stuff online is easy,” he said. “But figuring out what people care about is key. It’s editing, basically.”


Idea Festival: preserving humanity in a virtual world

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Spoken-word poet Azure Antoinette struggles with the problem as much as others do.

She worries that we are losing our humanity in a virtual world of digital communications, where many people pay more attention to their Facebook friends than their actual friends. Still, she said, she is addicted to her BlackBerry and is constantly on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s this false popularity that’s very strange,” Antoinette told her audience Thursday at the Idea Festival. “We are all so self-centered.”

Technology has opened up amazing new ways to expand communication, she noted, but we must avoid short-changing the genuine interpersonal communication that enriches our lives. “We are moving away from a time when things are physically tangible,” she said, and that is not good.

As a poet, she also worries about what social media is doing to young people’s language and grammar skills. And she fears that popular culture is being confused with meaningful art and literature.

During a question-and-answer session after her lecture, an audience member had the best line I have heard this morning: “I’ve heard it said that a book commits suicide every time somebody watches Jersey Shore.”

UK’s Porgy & Bess: great sets, even better music

January 29, 2011

I’ve never been to an opera before where I wanted to applaud for engineers almost as much as singers and musicians.

Friday was opening night for University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of the classic George and Ira Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. The show was professional-level outstanding, as UK Opera’s productions usually are. The large, all-African American cast drew from UK’s students and faculty, as well as those from Kentucky State University in Frankfort. They were backed by UK’s terrific orchestra.

What makes this production unique, though, are high-tech stage sets developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. Brent Seales, the center’s director, worked with Atlanta-based set designer Richard Kagey to create something theaters have been trying to do for years: image-projection sets good enough to enhance a show rather than distract from it. Click here to read a column I recently wrote about the project.

After watching the opening-night show, I was pleased (and relieved) to see that the sets were as good as promised. After UK’s production ends, the sets will be rented by The Atlanta Opera, and other opera companies also are interested. More importantly, UK hopes to commercialize the technology for other applications in theater and beyond.

In the photo above, the cast took a bow Friday night. After the show, below, Kagey gave a backstage tour to show UK Opera supporters how the system works.  The video images shown in the last photo helped make for a realistic hurricane scene.

If You Go

‘Porgy and Bess’

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

UK collaboration creates high-tech ‘Porgy & Bess’

January 22, 2011

When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera.

They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.

Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won’t be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.

These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.

“The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn’t happened before,” said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.

Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected “virtual” sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.

“If you were in the balcony, it didn’t work at all,” said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.

“I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.

To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.

Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is “calibration” software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.

As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. “Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen,” Seales said.

The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy’s shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. “But we won’t have those huge pieces that we’ve had to build before to make it believable,” McCorvey said.

Three-year collaboration

McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation’s top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.

But Seales and McCorvey didn’t meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.

“As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing,” said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. “As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater.”

McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.

“It’s a work near and dear to my heart,” McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.

McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House’s stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.

McCorvey’s problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK’s Porgy and Bess.

After UK’s last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.

UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.

“Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about,” Seales said.

While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK’s vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.

“I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time,” McCorvey said. “Len Heller looked at it and said to me, ‘This is going to be really big.'”

  • If You Go

    ‘Porgy and Bess’

    What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera

    When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

A sign of the times, seen today in Paris, Ky.

July 23, 2010

Alltech plans large algae farm in Kentucky

May 17, 2010

Alltech President Pearse Lyons said Monday that his company will announce in August the creation of a large algae factory in Kentucky to make bio-fuel and research new approaches for mitigating climate change.

Lyons declined to give the location or other details of the facility because the deal is still being negotiated. He said it would be the nation’s second-largest algae factory, after one in South Carolina.

Lyons told about 1,500 people from 50 countries who came to Lexington Center for Alltech’s 26th annual International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium that algae shows great promise for helping humans cope with two big problems: energy and climate change.

That’s because 1 acre of algae can produce 5,000 gallons of bio-fuel per year, and 1 ton of algae can absorb 2 tons of carbon dioxide, converting it to oxygen and carbohydrates, Lyons said.

Alltech, which primarily makes animal nutrition supplements using natural ingredients, uses the symposium to interact with its customers in 120 countries. Based in Lexington, the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

In the opening sessions, Lyons and Jim Pettigrew, a University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign professor who won this year’s Alltech Bioscience Medal of Excellence, also talked about how research, education and sustainable technology can be used to improve global food production.

Human health and environmental sustainability demand that agribusiness use fewer antibiotics and more natural supplements to improve animal nutrition and immune systems, Lyons said. “We are what our animals ate,” he said.

Symposium attendees also heard Monday from former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who talked about how he worked with Col. Harland Sanders to franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then Joaquin Pelaez, a Mexico native who runs Louisville-based Yum Brands’ KFC operations in China, talked about how KFC has grown there.

Other sessions this week range from animal nutrition issues to global agri-business trends. Attendees also browse booths throughout the convention center where Alltech touts its products, which also include Kentucky Ale, Alltech Angus steaks and Dippin Dots ice cream. The company also has begun distilling bourbon.

On Monday night, attendees were to attend a dinner in the new indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park to hear about the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games there this fall.

Eric Roderick, who has been involved in tilapia fish farming in Wales since 1979 and is attending his first Alltech symposium, said the brand attracted him here. “The company has become such a big name in international aquaculture,” he said.

The title for this year’s symposium is “Bounce Back 2010,” which reflects both a desire for business to rebound from the global recession and the title of University of Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari’s book. Calipari will speak Wednesday.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

TEDx event showcases Kentucky creativity

April 23, 2010

The month-long focus on creativity in Lexington is about over, but let’s hope it’s really just the beginning.

April began with the Creative Cities Summit, included numerous other events and ended Friday with a TEDx seminar at Buster’s club that attracted about 200 people.

Technology executive Kent Lewis organized the local version of the informative seminars and video lectures produced by the TED organization. Standing for Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED’s theme is “ideas worth spreading.”

Jim Bates, who spends much of his time in Kentucky, is general manager of HRTV, a television-based multimedia network about horse racing. Bates called for more creativity in the horse industry, saying there’s no reason technology can’t help reverse racing’s decline in popularity.

“It’s the perfect sport for today’s instantaneous society,” he said. “It’s a two-minute event! A golf tournament takes four days!”

Bates, one of ESPN’s first employees, talked about how the 24-hour sports network has helped change the nature of sports in America — and not all for the better. He lamented that childrens’ sports has become highly organized by adults, which too often keeps kids from learning leadership, problem-solving and social skills.

Stanley Hainsworth, who was born and raised in small-town Western Kentucky, discussed his career as a top creative officer at Nike, Lego and Starbucks. He now owns a brand-development company, Tether. “Life is too short to not do what you’re passionate about,” he said.

Among the other speeches:

■ Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., discussed space research.

■ Community gardener Jim Embry talked about the importance of society reconnecting with the earth.

Christine Kuhn, an artist and former research scientist, talked about why art is important.

■ Artist Marjorie Guyon discussed her work.

■ Software developer Todd Willey talked about how technology can better connect people in the future.

Karen Gerstandt, a German-born scientist at the University of Kentucky, discussed her research into clean water and energy that was used in a new kind of power plant that opened last November in Norway.

■ Bill Cloyd talked about his company, Newton’s Attic, that uses play to teach kids science.

Wes Keltner, founder of a virtual technology firm, discussed how video games create emotional attachments.

■ Former Kentuckian Britt Selvitelle talked about his work as one of the lead software engineers for Twitter.

Lewis said he plans to organize another TEDx event in Lexington this fall, focused on children and creativity. He already has signed up his first two speakers; they’re both 12 years old.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

To create high-tech economy, focus on the brains

March 29, 2010

April is technology month in Lexington. Local promoters plan to spotlight the high-tech people and companies already here in the hope of attracting more.

Digital technology has given smart people more flexibility about where they live and work. That’s an opportunity for Lexington, a beautiful city with a great quality of life.

The big question is, how can Lexington make the most of that opportunity?

One way to succeed is to identify success and figure out how to replicate it. So I went to see Alan Hawse, vice president of information technology at Cypress Semiconductor, one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of the silicon chips at the heart of almost every electronic device.

Cypress is based in San Jose, Calif. Hawse works in Lexington, along with about 40 other Cypress employees who do high-level research and development. The Lexington design center is one of five Cypress has in the United States. Four others are in India, Ireland and Belgium.

Why is this little piece of the Silicon Valley now at Main Street and Mill in Lexington? Because of Hawse.

Hawse, 41, was born and raised in Lexington, attended public schools and studied electrical engineering at the University of Kentucky and Georgia Tech. He joined Cypress in 1991 and worked in the Silicon Valley for five years.

But when it came time to start a family, Hawse and his wife, Jill, who is from Georgetown, wanted to live here. Cypress didn’t want to see a talented employee move on, so it moved with him.

Things have worked out well for both Hawse and his employer. “Cypress loves Lexington because we’ve been able to hire a lot of super-intelligent people who like to live here and do good work,” he said.

Like Hawse, many of the Cypress employees in Lexington are native Kentuckians or UK graduates. “Every time there’s a story written about me,” he said, “I get calls from mothers with kids in the Silicon Valley.”

Hawse, a former Herald-Leader contributing columnist, said the first thing he would do to build Lexington’s high-tech economy would be to compile a list of Kentucky natives and UK grads who are technology industry standouts elsewhere. Call them. Fly out to see them. Ask them whether they have any interest in coming back. If so, ask them what it would take to get them here.

“Lexington has many, many of the good things about big cities and almost none of the drawbacks,” Hawse said. Natural beauty. Good schools. Universities. Little crime. No traffic. Lots of cultural amenities. “I would work at selling those things; play to your strengths and away from your weaknesses,” he said.

“I would promote an intellectual framework that would allow high-tech people everywhere to visualize themselves being here,” Hawse said. “Sometimes, all you have to do is give people a map. Maps have lots of roads on them. They don’t tell you where to go, but they show you where you can go.”

But that’s only a start. Lexington must become known as a place where technology people and companies can grow and succeed. That means more tolerance and diversity, fewer good old boy networks.

Most important of all, Hawse said, it means education. Kentucky must create educational excellence, from preschool to graduate school. Rigorous math and science education must begin in elementary school, and the “gem” students must be nurtured.

Creating educational excellence also means better coordination and pooling of Kentucky’s limited resources. Less overhead. Less bureaucracy. “Here’s a radical idea,” Hawse said. “What if we merged UK and (the University of Louisville)? What about that?”

The problem with traditional economic development strategies, Hawse thinks, is that they are political exercises built around trying to hit home runs — landing the big plant, attracting the big company.

But long-term success, he thinks, comes from steady, continuous improvement. Improving education. Connecting smart people and companies. Creating an entrepreneurial climate that encourages business development and personal success.

“It’s all about the brains and the skills they acquire,” Hawse said. “It’s all about developing the brains, keeping them here and bringing them back here. And bringing new ones here. The brains make it possible.”

April Is … an effort to boost Lexington high tech

February 22, 2010

Central Kentucky is known as a center for horses, bourbon and basketball. As a center for creative technology people? Not so much.

Yet, technology employment in the Lexington area has grown at a rate that is more than four times the national average in the past decade. More than 6,000 people are now employed by technology and software companies, including Lexmark, Belcan Engineering, ACS/Xerox, Hewlett-Packard and Mersive Technologies.

“I don’t think people realize how pervasive technology is here,” said Ben Askren, a Lexmark engineer. And that makes it difficult for technology companies to attract and retain the best employees so they can keep growing.

Askren is part of a volunteer group called In2Lex that has worked to help Lexington’s creative technology workers get to know each other through events such as Geek’s Night Out and Pecha-Kucha, an idea-generation program in which speakers make presentations of no more than six minutes and 40 seconds each.

Now the group wants to raise Lexington’s national profile as a place where creative technology people can find career opportunities and a pleasant, interesting lifestyle.

In2Lex is promoting “April Is …” to focus attention on more than 20 events being sponsored by several organizations that month. They include the Creative Cities Summit and a “TedX” seminar — a local version of the Technology, Entertainment, Design events that feature big-name speakers with “ideas worth spreading.”

Several technology gatherings are planned: the Kentucky Innovation & Technology Conference, the Kentucky Space Conference, and seminars related to electronic health information, mobile devices, government information systems, social entrepreneurship and business development.

And then there’s the geeky, fun stuff.

Mechanalia is an interactive game in which small teams drive electric rovers with robotic arms and try to accomplish tasks while opponents shoot at them with tennis-ball cannons; Tinker is a combination jazz festival and science fair for adults; and at the No Mercy Full-Blown Gamers’ Party, attendees can play unreleased video games.

All this will be going on during one of Lexington’s traditionally interesting months: the horses are running at Keeneland and competing in the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. And then there is the Best of the Bluegrass festival.

“We really want to promote Lexington as a lifestyle, career and education destination for people in creative technology,” Askren said.

OK, I can already hear some of you snickering. But, if you think about it, this economic development strategy makes a lot of sense. Digital technology increasingly allows creative workers to live wherever they want. And they usually want to live near a city with a lot of professional opportunities.

Competing with Austin, Texas, and Seattle is a challenge, but Central Kentucky has some advantages that it can exploit. “Once people see what’s here, it changes their perception of Kentucky,” said Gina Greathouse, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president for economic development.

Those advantages include a laid-back, affordable lifestyle; a beautiful landscape; more arts and cultural offerings than many people realize; and a central location not far from Cincinnati and Louisville. Plus, Lexington has one of the nation’s best-educated labor forces: 38 percent of people older than 25 have college degrees, and there are 15 colleges and universities in the area.

Those attributes regularly put Lexington high on national rankings of places to raise a family or start a business.

In2Lex hopes to make its “April Is …” an annual event, and it is looking for new ways to market the region’s creative technology potential. “It really comes down to how do we make Lexington a better place,” Askren said.

  • If you go

    For more information about In2Lex and a schedule of events planned in April, go to