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Emerging Lane | Home-Grown Innovation

Incubators and accelerators help Kentucky entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses

By Kathie Stamps

Madisonville’s Innovation Station is geared toward small-business incubator clients who are still working through the thought process and building their business from the ground up.
Madisonville’s Innovation Station is geared toward small-business incubator clients who are still working through the thought process and building their business from the ground up.

New business start-ups in Kentucky have numerous tools at their disposal, thanks to a vibrant scene of incubators and accelerators.

Much of this work was kickstarted in 2001 with the founding of the Kentucky Innovation Network by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development (CED). Each of KIN’s 10 regional offices and two satellite offices receive a dollar-for-dollar match from CED and its partner organization.

Last year the Kentucky Innovation Network’s clients helped create more than 2,000 new jobs with median wages of $56,000 per year, which is above the state and national averages for a single worker.

Here’s a look at some of the innovative activity around the state:

Kentucky Innovation Network, London

Each office within the Kentucky Innovation Network has a partnering organization. In London, it’s Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which has been around since 1968.

Companies whose owners have benefited from the network in London include Curbside Enterprises; Four Corners Pet Food; Frontier BioPharm; Inquiry Technologies; and Symbiosis Media Group.

Suzan “Suzi” Hixon is a trademark attorney who lives on a farm just outside London. She rents office space at Kentucky Highlands Innovation Center and meets with clients via Skype from her cubicle.

“I would strongly encourage anyone who desires a nontraditional working environment to consider a co-working space,” said Hixon, who used co-working spaces in San Francisco. 

The Innovation Station, Madisonville

A train depot built in 1929 now houses 40 spots for incubator clients and co-working spaces in Madisonville. The Innovation Station opened in November 2017 as part of the Madisonville-Hopkins County Economic Development Corp.

Some of Innovation Station’s most sustainable and profitable startups are very low tech.

“They are focused on delivering products and services that revolve around construction such as plumbing, electrical and masonry,” said Ruthann Padgett, vice president of operations. “There are just so few tradespeople anymore that anyone with skill who wants to do a startup in this realm can be successful.”

Aviatra Accelerators, Covington

Founded in 2010, Aviatra Accelerators is based in Covington and provides business basics and resources to female entrepreneurs statewide.

“Our women have received over $6 million in follow-on funding and have generated over $68 million in sales revenue upon completion of our program,” said Tori Schoettmer, program manager.

“We have definitely seen an increase in personal services such as concierges, coaching, etc.,” Schoettmer said.

Aviatra has three program tracks: Explore, Launch and Grow. Continued support for alumni is part of Aviatra’s mission.

WKU Small Business Accelerator, Bowling Green

The WKU Center for Research and Development, two miles south of Western Kentucky University’s campus, houses the WKU Small Business Accelerator and the central region office of KIN. One of the first program participants when the accelerator started in 2005 was John Higgins, owner of Bluegrass Supply Chain Services. Now a $46 million company, the multistate logistics company is still headquartered in Bowling Green.

The WKU Student Business Accelerator started in 2012. Among those taking advantage of the opportunity is Robert Bowden, a freshman from Atlanta majoring in entrepreneurship. He’s currently running his own automotive off-road parts company, Spartan 4×4, out of the accelerator.

“By being engaged in our program, they’re very much in tune with the entrepreneurs in the region,” Director Jeff Hook said of the accelerator students. “They can create their company, their own job, and they have a network of support services. There’s a good chance when they graduate they’ll stay in Kentucky. It’s a retention strategy.”

Art Accelerator Program, Berea

Funded by the Berea Tourist and Convention Commission, the Art Accelerator Program is open to Berea College students and local residents who are artists wanting to learn entrepreneurial skills. Up to five artists are chosen for fellowships each year.

They receive a monthly stipend, business training from the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and the Berea College AIR Institute, and a shared studio space and retail gallery.

Over the past three years, the accelerator has trained 14 artists. In June 2017, program graduate Tim Wade began running his woodworking gallery out of the Cabin of Old Town, a renovated cabin built in 1813. He leases the small building from the city.

“The program is a step in preserving the arts and crafts culture that has made Berea a destination for thousands of visitors each year,” said Kerri Lee Hensley, executive director of the Berea Tourist and Convention Commission.

Accelerating Appalachia, Lexington

Founding director Sara Day Evans started the nonprofit Accelerating Appalachia program in Asheville, N.C., in 2013. She is based in Lexington now, with partners running the Asheville office. The regional accelerator focuses on sustainable nature-based businesses that provide food, clothing, shelter and wellness. Program participants are in a growth stage.

“We seek to build better supply chains for them,” Evans said. “Most of these businesses have a regional reach in terms of getting them on the shelves.”

The 12-week program connects a dozen business owners with mentors, investors and customers.

Awesome Inc., Lexington

Awesome Inc. in Lexington is known as a co-working space and entrepreneurial events venue. Founded in 2009, the company has since added a hybrid incubator-accelerator program known as the Awesome Fellowship.

Awesome Fellowship provides eight business owners per year with legal and accounting services, designer and programming talent, and access to a mentor network of 80 professionals. Funded by investors and grants, the program is free to participants.

“For an ‘angel’ investor in Kentucky who wants to invest some of their money into the highest potential startups coming out of the state but they don’t necessarily have time to do due diligence, our program can serve as meeting all those things,” said Brian Raney, Awesome Inc. co-founder and CEO.

Rebecca Wheeling, CEO and co-founder of Schedule It, graduated from Awesome Inc.’s one-year Awesome Fellowship program in the fall of 2016. Based in Elizabethtown, Schedule It is a business that increases claim-adjuster productivity by allowing adjusters to see more claims and close them faster.

During the fellowship, Wheeling had access to monthly resources from an attorney, a CPA, business consultant, graphic artist and videographer.

“The ability to network with other startup companies further along than me is invaluable,” Wheeling said. “Schedule It would not be here today without the numerous connections and resources provided in Kentucky.”