Anthony Ellis, General Counsel at Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development and Executive Director of KY Innovation

Innovation may sound like a buzzword to some, but it is an essential driver of economic progress. This is why Kentucky is taking a purposeful approach to enhancing its innovation economy. Louisville Future spoke to Anthony Ellis, general counsel at Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development and executive director of KY Innovation about that approach.

What are the state’s priorities when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship?

 Ellis: KY Innovation’s focus areas for the next 12-18 months are:

  • Connectivity: making it easier for entrepreneurs to learn and plug into the ecosystem and its resources.
  • Metrics, data and transparency: building a database that collects information and making that information available publicly.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion: work with the KY Innovation Hubs, statewide partners and the corporate community to establish clusters to leverage and support existing industry sectors that foster more innovative ideas and companies.
  • Maximizing investment dollars: ensuring that our funding makes a greater impact on more innovators and startups through vehicles such as Kentucky SBIR/STTR matching funds, Kentucky Enterprise Fund and Commonwealth Seed Capital.
  • Talent and innovation attraction: launching efforts to attract tech talent and businesses to Kentucky’s innovation economy.

Our initiatives provide services mainly through public-private partnerships in four programs:

  1. The Kentucky Innovation Hubs, which are outward-facing offices to connect and provide information in six geographic regions
  2. Kentucky Commercialization Ventures (KCV), which manages our innovation efforts within universities and includes a nationally recognized and awarded statewide tech-transfer collaboration among Kentucky’s public higher education institutions
  3. Our statewide investment funds, which we are working to make more accessible and take advantage of their ability to generate leads of startups and companies interested in moving to Kentucky
  4. The Governor’s School of Entrepreneurship, which promotes an entrepreneurship mindset among Kentucky’s youth

How can our readers access these programs?

 Ellis: KY Innovation is an entry point for entrepreneurs and startups to access programs we fund, as well as a pathway for any startup to get connected to other resources across Kentucky. Contact us through the KY Innovation website or a partner organization. We are launching a new website this fall, and it will include a community feature to allow interaction with mentors, other entrepreneurs, resources and events.

If an entrepreneur is looking for early stage funding, is there a primary contact within the state they should contact?

 Ellis: For an early-stage startup, we would direct them to the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, which manages KEF. We’re also building a database of investors and their [respective] focus areas, so entrepreneurs can better access the capital they need.

You mentioned KCV and tech transfer. What exciting research do you see coming out of KY universities?

 Ellis: Kentucky’s universities together account for over $600 million in total research-grant income annually. University of Kentucky’s Office of Technology Commercialization leads a regional biomedical technology acceleration hub across the Southeastern U.S., and University of Kentucky (UK) researchers lead an autonomous systems research consortia across the Midwest.

Our proximity to logistics hubs gives us a supply chain advantage. Both UK and UofL have innovation and research partnerships with Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where UPS (Louisville), as well as DHL and Amazon (Hebron) have shipping hubs.

Some of the most unique and locally relevant research happening, however, is related to drug/substance abuse and finding non-opioid solutions and treatments. UK received an $87 million Helping End Addiction Long Term (HEAL) grant focused specifically on this area, the only of its kind in the U.S. At UofL, among other key accomplishments and efforts, researchers are helping develop nasal sprays to prevent serious viral infections such as COVID-19 using Q-Griffithsin, a drug developed and co-owned by the university.

What about the plans to help them commercialize this research?

 Ellis: We launched KCV last year to provide innovators at all of our state’s public universities, community and technical colleges with the same services available at our flagship research universities. This means anyone at one of these institutions with an idea can access invention assessment, patent or other intellectual property protection, marketing, startup formation and licensing.

Are there specific metrics or goals you track that will define success for the state?

 Ellis: Developing, tracking and publishing metrics that illustrate innovation is a cornerstone of our strategy for the next year. In the past two contract cycles, we instituted clear, definable metrics across our innovation programs and are also working with KY STATS to develop a statewide benchmarking tool to track our innovation economy across metrics used by many of the national ranking agencies. In addition to identifying desired results, we’re aligning activities that directly impact those outcomes so we can evaluate the innovation space’s health in real time. We are implementing this kind of rigorous approach across all of the programs that we fund.

Top-line metrics for innovation include business starts, capital raised, liquidations, patents or other intellectual property transactions and jobs created. We are not only interested in headcount at new or growing companies but also in the creation of high quality jobs paying a living wage. That’s where innovation can make a significant impact, because startups pay higher wages on average.