There’s a perception that fewer technological ideas originate in far western Kentucky than in the central part of the state. Patent filings would likely support that perception. There are some valid factors that contribute to the shortfall. Lack of a full-scale research center is an advantage the cities surrounding the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville have.
A traditionally conservative mindset may also contribute to the shortfall of innovation. Rural areas work hard to deliver stable, established companies because they often get passed over by the tech-driven firms. Research by EntrePaducah even showed that “idea resistance” is a local factor that works against entrepreneurism.
So, we’re behind in tech-driven companies, so what? We actually do have a good representation of tech-driven companies in the region. I won’t list for fear of leaving someone out, but there are some very progressive companies in our area that invented and commercialized innovative products. Those companies also typically provide higher-paying and more secure jobs. That’s the first “So what.” The second is that yes, we can likely survive by not being the next Silicon Valley but to let up says that we’re satisfied just being “okay” (not growing/not creating jobs/not prospering).
Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, oversees the development of databases that track issues and trends in Kentucky. Crouch told Paducah Rotarians recently that the last 30 years in the United States, “have been built on a false economy that can be stabilized by transitioning to a society that once again invents things, builds things and makes things.”
Crouch’s suggestions are for banks to be re-regulated to encourage more active small business loans; that government and business work closer together for the “common-wealth”; that education should focus more on learning than testing; and that government should put more emphasis on the nation’s infrastructure, which ultimately supports the capitalist system. All seem to be key ingredients in a shift toward “investing, building and making” things.
So, we have problems to overcome, so what?
Aesop has been telling us that “invention is the mother of necessity” for more than a few years, and most often it’s entrepreneurs who listen. We didn’t know we could get there faster until we invented cars. We never thought we could fly until we invented airplanes. We didn’t know we needed iPads until they were invented.
So, how do we turn western Kentucky into a “River Valley Tech Corridor?” Start by admitting that it can be done. Just a few months ago, Southern Business and Development Magazine named Owensboro one of the “top ten most technologically advanced markets in the South.” The ranking was attributed to the city’s Center for Business and Research, a high-tech lab facility and office space that was formerly a tobacco warehouse.
Mindset, however, may be the most important factor. Progressive, community-minded people made things like the Emerging Technology Center at West Kentucky Community & Technical College a reality. The Lowertown Arts District and the Carson Center, while not entirely tech-driven, are examples of what the community can accomplish.
EntrePaducah is another example of forward thinking in the community. Before “entrepreneur” became a word you see daily on your MSN homepage, local civic and government leaders put their money where their mouth is and formed (and funded) a full-time agency just for start-ups and small business. Four years later, it continues to serve the entire community with information and resources that help businesses get started. EntrePaducah is also one of two western Kentucky offices for the Kentucky Innovation Network. Some of you may know this as the agency formerly called the Innovation & Commercialization Office.
Effective July 1, the Paducah KIN office became responsible for helping tech-driven startups in McCracken, Ballard, Livingston, Crittenden, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton counties. The Regional Business & Innovation Center at Murray State serves the remaining counties in the Purchase and some in the Pennyrile. Paducah’s KIN office is run by Ian Blache, Murray’s by Loretta Daniel.
Both offices work with clients individually and in group seminars, and share the resources of the entire Kentucky Innovation Network (startups.kstc.com). Grant and investment opportunities are also part of the network’s resources, but only after a company fully develops its business plan by working with the KIN staff. The money doesn’t come easy, but no public money should come easy. All that’s being requested is the same as would be required by any financial institution.
So, what’s tech-driven innovation? Let’s go back to the soybeans, urinals and toothbrushes. I used soybeans to represent the typical farm this year. Farms are full of technology — computers, GPS tracking, advanced communications devices — and that’s just on the tractor. Thank goodness agriculture has embraced technology. It takes all the help farmers can get to feed 7 billion people.
Urinal technology is actually an add-on. Just this week, technology was introduced through the use of urinal liners that, when “activated” (Google it), deliver an audio reminder about not drinking and driving.
Which brings us to the Beam Toothbrush, which is, proudly, a Kentucky product. The toothbrush communicates with a phone app to record how often you brush and other important facts. It also has a timer and an audio card that allows you to download your favorite “music to brush your teeth by.”
It’s all driven by technology and it is our future — if we want it to be.
Terry Reeves is the concierge for EntrePaducah, a joint effort by Paducah and McCracken County governments, the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce and Paducah Economic Development to foster small-business growth. Contact him at 270-443-1746 or firstname.lastname@example.org.