Home » One-on-One: Fill a Niche Before Others – And Better Than Anybody Else

One-on-One: Fill a Niche Before Others – And Better Than Anybody Else

Former Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and current Space Tango leader Kris Kimel keeps pushing Kentucky in technology and innovation

By Mark Green

Kris Kimel is co-founder and chairman of Space Tango.

Mark Green: You have spent three decades of your career working to support entrepreneurism in the state, having co-founded Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. in 1987 and leading it until earlier this year. What inspired to focus your energy there?

Kris Kimel: I’ve always been a naturally curious person and interested in trying new things. I’ve never worked in a big organization; I probably wouldn’t do well in one. Entrepreneurial development and innovation were kind of a natural transition for me. Over time I became very interested in the art and science of creating things and starting enterprises and organizations, and part of that is the ideas that they’re founded on. In today’s world, you have to have really creative, interesting ideas to build companies around. Thirty years ago you could open up a hardware store like everybody else. Now, you have to figure out what your niche is: what you’re going to do, how you’re going to fill that niche, and how to do it better than anybody else. In today’s world, one of the opportunities to express yourself creatively is in creating companies and ideas.

MG: You have said a key to success is to fail, optimally fast and often, so you can learn from it. How does a new entrepreneur embrace this strategy?

KK: If I had to restate it, I would say one of the keys is not being afraid to fail. Certainly you don’t want to fail. But you have to be prepared for failure. Then the question is, what really is failure? Is it truly failure (or) is it a learning experience? I read about a particular inventor of something quite in use now who said that people were impressed with him for inventing it. But he said he failed 127 times and it was only on 128 that he figured it out. Were those 127 times failures? Maybe, maybe not.

Another key to success is persistence. I’ve read that the difference between an entrepreneur who fails and one who succeeds, oftentimes, is that the one who failed just quit too early. You have to be incredibly persistent, but you also have to realize that things are not going to happen at the speed at which you think that they should. There is a time context in which these things happen – it may not be the one you want, but that’s just the way it is. If you think it’s going to take you two years, you probably should triple that – and maybe that’s not even close. You have to make sure you’re prepared for that.

MG: You and former UK President Lee Todd co-founded Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. in 1987 with a self-assigned mission to fuel an innovation-driven entrepreneurial economy in Kentucky. Tell us more.

KK: Its original intent was to be an advocate for science and technology innovation in Kentucky. After doing that a couple years, it dawned on us that people weren’t willing to pay for someone to advocate something, so we shifted into actually producing programs and things of that nature. It was only me part-time for the first two or three years, and once we started turning into an operational group that designed and built programs, that’s where we got traction. I left KSTC in January of this year to devote my time fully to Space Tango.

MG: KSTC’s website currently lists a lot of programs. What are its major initiatives and accomplishments?

KK: There have been a lot of spinouts. There have been some huge, pretty substantial success stories in the area of entrepreneurship, research and development, and STEM education. Over the years there have been projects that were funded in those areas at anywhere from $50,000 to – in some cases –  $20-25 million on a couple of years basis. There have also been things that sprang out of KSTC, like the IdeaFestival.

But its strength really has been in the whole idea of disruptive innovation; trying to do things that could have a material impact on the economy of Kentucky. Whether it was helping people start new companies, helping to capitalize those companies, helping research at the university, STEM education, it all tied together around that one thing (science and tech innovation).

MG: How is the entrepreneurism and innovation culture in Kentucky, especially compared to other states, which also are actively cultivating entrepreneurship?

KK: Kentucky’s made real progress over the past 20-25 years in entrepreneurial development, innovation, R&D at the universities, etc. I don’t think we’ve made as much progress as we should have or can; I think we’re capable of much more. It’s not a static field; so even though you may be doing better, relative to everybody else you may be falling behind.

One of the indicators I’ve always considered is per capita income. And overall per capita income for Kentucky (82 percent of the U.S. average) for the past 40 or 45-plus years has gone nowhere relative to other states and the nation. We’re in the race doing better, but so is everybody else – which means we have to do better than other people.

This is one of the primary reasons that gave rise to looking to this new entrepreneurial space industry. If Kentucky is ever going to improve its competitive position, it’s going to have to do things other people aren’t already doing, and things that it can do very well. Getting a research grant of $5 million in X area is not going to do anything when everybody else has been doing that same area of science for 30 years.

MG: How is Kentucky’s funding environment for entrepreneurs?

KK: There’s plenty of capital in Kentucky, but not enough capital that is comfortable investing in technology and innovation-driven companies. There are some very smart people who’ve made a lot of money here but a lot of it has been in banking and real estate and law and things like that. Investing in a technology startup takes a different mindset. The world has shifted fundamentally, and it’s not that these traditional things are going away – they’re not – but they are changing, and there needs to be a shift in our thinking.

There’s capital, and then there’s smart capital. Capital is family and friends and people who like your idea who invest. Smart capital is the people who understand the business and contribute more than just money; they’re helping you grow the business. Kentucky lacks a certain amount of that smarter capital because we don’t have a lot of people here who have been successful at designing and developing technology-driven companies.

With Space Tango, we have investors in Kentucky, but we also have investors on the West Coast. From experience, it can be difficult to have people take a risk and invest in something that is much more amorphous than ‘let’s buy this 20 acres and make a subdivision out of it.’ Our assets are primarily intellectual assets, and those things don’t necessarily translate.

MG: You founded the IdeaFestival, which since its beginning in 2001 has attracted lots of positive media from around the nation for Kentucky. Where did the inspiration for this event come from and why?

KK: First was a recognition that in today’s economy, the integration of ideas is incredibly important to creating new things and successes. There’s no such thing as useless knowledge. If you want to be creative and successful in today’s world, whether you’re an artist or you’re running Google, you have to be able to identify and integrate different forms of knowledge, whether it’s for the arts, science, engineering, philosophy or design.

A good example is Apple. One of the things Steve Jobs did that was truly revolutionary was when he combined the creative technology of Apple with what they wanted to do with design and art and created devices that not only work well but look good and feel good in your hands. He understood you should talk about art and design as you develop products as opposed to let’s just put it in a box, get it out there and hope it works well.

The second thing was a recognition that we should try to put something on the map for Kentucky that says we understand the importance of ideas and innovation. So we created an entire event around this whole concept of innovation, ideas and entrepreneurship across all disciplines to make our mark. In the early stages of the IdeaFestival we had articles in Fast Company, in The New York Times and elsewhere that Kentucky – of all places! – had created this unique event focused around ideas.

Today there are a number of ideas festivals – the Aspen Ideas Festival, Chicago Ideas Week – but the IdeaFestival that started in Lexington in 2001 was the first. We trademarked it: IdeaFestival KSTC.

MG: This year, 2018, the IdeaFestival is having a “pause.” Is it because there’s not a budget to pay these presenters to come in?

KK: The pause this year is because you need to reinvent yourself constantly. I don’t care how successful you think you are. Kodak failed for a lot of reasons, but one reason is because they couldn’t imagine a world without Kodak cameras. That’s the first error to irrelevancy. It’s time to step back.

When IdeaFestival began, we paid speakers because we had to – this wasn’t New York, Chicago, L.A.; people weren’t normally coming here. Everybody was negotiated separately, and the amounts we had to pay were dramatically lower than they are today. There are speakers we got 10, 15 years ago for $5,000 that are now $30,000 and $40,000.

Part of the reason for the pause is that the model that had developed for the festival is not sustainable anymore. Kentucky has no major media markets, and you don’t have anybody saying they’ll do it just because it’s in Chicago. As a consequence, the financial model for the festival wasn’t viable anymore. KSTC is trying to figure out if its model can go forward.

MG: You advocate support of all creative endeavors as an essential complement to business success. Can you explain this?

KK: Whatever your discipline – scientist, engineer, artist, poet or philosopher – your area of study brings a unique perspective to the table. In all of those areas, people who are really good at it are creative. If you look at the history of scientific breakthroughs, many came from artists who imagined the unimaginable. They looked at the world and said, hmm, what if it looked like this? I wonder if you could do this? What if there’s such a thing as electricity? In many cases, artists imagined scientific breakthroughs before scientists did, like bending light and multiple dimensions.

If you pay attention and keep an open mind and listen, you find that people bring different perspectives to the table and those things together create the picture, a mosaic.

Educators are important: Educators can tell you how people learn, and a lot of things in today’s world revolve around people learning how to use things. It’s important to develop things that are user friendly as opposed to, gee, this is cool, but I can’t figure it out.

MG: How do you advise small businesses to promote and create a culture of innovation and creativity?

KK: The first key is to hire people who have a creative perspective and then create an environment that fosters that. Hire really smart people and let them do their jobs. Command and control is out. It’s all about persuade and empower in today’s world. There’s a big difference between people who follow your leadership and people who do what you say because they’re subordinates and think they have to.

You have to foster an environment where people have an opportunity to express themselves and pursue their passions within the construct of the organization. Most people have a desire to do things that are bigger than they are and if given an opportunity to be a part of that, people will. They won’t if you treat them as subordinates.

MG: What led you to decide Kentucky is a good place to initiate a business to supply the emerging New Space industry and its operations?

KK: In the late ’90s and early 2000s, I saw a shift taking place in the space industry, driven by a couple of things. One was the discussion to decommission the U.S. space shuttle, which was controversial but opened up the private marketplace because private companies couldn’t compete cost-wise against a government bus going up and down. Another thing was this rapid and relentless miniaturization of technology; people were starting to design and build things that were very small and had relatively modest cost but very, very high value.

Around 2005 Bob Twiggs, then head of the Stanford Space and Systems Development Lab at Stanford University, co-invented the CubeSat, a miniature satellite (around 10 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm) that was built around miniaturization and assumes a steadily declining cost of launch. At that time, Scott Hubbard, who was born in Lexington and raised in Elizabethtown, was the director of NASA Ames Research Center (in Mountain View, Calif.). He said, ‘We’re creating a research park here under my leadership; why don’t you guys open an office?’ KSTC said sure, let’s see what happens. Stanford also had an office at Ames and one day I got introduced to Bob Twiggs and learned about these CubeSats, what they are and what they do.

I came away really excited about the potential of these new technologies. And it was a new frontier; at that time only a couple of those satellites had ever been launched. And, meanwhile – true to form for every kind of big new idea – people laughed at them, thought they were too small.

I saw an opportunity: This is a new industry – and, back to what I said earlier – maybe an opportunity to get into an industry that we’re not 25 years behind. I’ve always had a lot of confidence in the talent and creativity of people in Kentucky. I thought, we can do this. We got some people in my office at Morehead and a few others together and created Kentucky Space, a nonprofit spinoff from KSTC and the first organization to start building CubeSats.

Today, in 2018, you have companies that are raising tens of millions of dollars, whose entire business is built around CubeSats. They are launching these small, modest-cost things into lower orbit to do remote sensing, data gathering, all sorts of different things.

MG: When did Kentucky Space ramp up?

KK: That would have been 2005 or 2006. We started building CubeSats and putting payloads up in high-altitude balloons, then suborbital flights, then launched several CubeSats on orbital flights. During that time, an opportunity was given to us to build some technology for the International Space Station. We had gotten a reputation as this rogue group in Kentucky that was doing things really well. All the work was being done by students and done well, inexpensively and very quickly –  and their things were working.

We started building technology for the space station, and that got us on a different track – this new idea of lower orbit being a new frontier for business and for medicine. We began to understand that lower orbit is a fundamentally different physics environment, and things behave differently in zero gravity than on Earth. We started to investigate this, particularly in the area of materials and biomedicine. How do certain drugs interact in microgravity, as opposed to gravity? Is it possible to develop different pharmaceuticals whose fundamental structure is formed in microgravity as opposed to gravity? These were interesting questions, and we created Space Tango, a for-profit company.

Again, we saw this as a way of getting in early to a new, exciting industry, and doing something no one would ever expect Kentucky to do. When we first announced Kentucky Space, there were all these funny things on the internet – it was like a big joke. But we absolutely believe it is possible one of the big next medical revolutions, particularly in the area of biomedicine, might not be on the planet Earth. Several scientists at NASA put us in contact with Dr. Barry Blumberg, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine who discovered the hepatitis B virus and vaccine. He began working with us, and we developed this concept that now is called exomedicine. As opposed to space medicine, which deals with astronauts, exomedicine is the research, development and production of medical solutions in microgravity for applications on Earth. We look at things such as, by putting things in microgravity can we get a deeper understanding of cancer, of diabetes, of Parkinson’s, etc.? Can we understand new pathways to develop drugs that molecularly structure themselves differently in microgravity, and can those be applied on Earth?

What Space Tango does now, primarily, is R&D and very quickly we’re getting into manufacturing of materials, but primarily biomedical, exomedicine-related solutions for applications on Earth.

The idea behind Space Tango is that it’s a research, design and manufacturing company. We’re designing the technologies, designing engineering, etc., to start manufacturing in late 2018. Our longer-term goals and plans call for an exponential growth in the manufacturing side of what we do.

We also have customers (whose experiments) we fly to the space station where we have two labs permanently installed. We have a big contract with Airbus. We work for customers all over the world to fly things up for them. We also launch our own intellectual property, and we’re getting down the road on that as well. It’s very much a service and product development company.

MG: Space Tango is a company that’s going to fail or succeed on profit and loss?

KK: Absolutely. It’s a for-profit company. We have two basic sources of revenue: customers and investors. The hypothesis of what we’re funding is that we are going to increasingly find things that benefit life on Earth and humans, that must be made in microgravity because you can’t make them in the gravitational field. You get different settling; you get different structures. You can create thin films in space, in microgravity, that you can’t create on Earth. It’s literally like you’re going into a different physics environment. We do work in our lab on Earth, too, but our fundamental work is done 250 miles up off the Earth.

MG: How successful has Kentucky Space and Space Tango been at increasing the size and profile of Kentucky’s tech sector?

KK: I would say it’s had a significant effect. The (current) cover story of the quarterly publication of NASA’s International Space Station is on Space Tango and one of our regenerative medicine projects. That’s not the first cover story we’ve had. I can honestly say we are very well known globally in the space and technology area. Even though we’re a small startup company, a couple of years old, we have a very, very good reputation. And we have customers – Airbus, a big project with the National Stem Cell Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the National MS Society – all over the world. We have a very strong presence in this emerging industry.

Mark Green is executive editor of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]