An 80-job, $7.8 million investment announced in November 2020 is a model for how Kentucky’s innovation ecosystem cultivates real jobs, not just white-board concepts and pitch sessions.
Louisville-based HANDLE Global’s jobs also happen to be helping health care systems, governments and companies navigate capital planning and supply chain issues during a global pandemic, partly via software-as-a-service, and partly through direct provision of personal protective equipment (PPE). The company earned a major contract with the federal Veterans Health Administration in 2020.
“I’ve said many times in the fight against COVID-19, we are in this together, and few companies embody that spirit of togetherness like HANDLE Global,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
Not bad for a tech startup.
Founded in 2014 with a mission to refurbish hospital equipment, HANDLE today is one of the more than 200 health care-related technology, service and manufacturing facilities operating in the state, which employ over 37,000 Kentuckians full-time. The company has received assistance over the years from KY Innovation — the commonwealth’s office for entrepreneurial and small business support — while also applying for and receiving investments from the Kentucky Enterprise Fund (managed by the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp.) and Commonwealth Seed Capital.
“HANDLE represents the continuum of support and growth that are building blocks of a vibrant startup ecosystem,” said KY Innovation Deputy Executive Director Ellie Puckett. “They are not alone, and we plan on seeing more and more companies coming through this pipeline.”
Once they do, they can often graduate to new pipelines of support: For the new expansion, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority approved a 10-year, $1.4 million incentive agreement with the company under the Kentucky Business Investment program, making the company eligible to keep a portion of the new tax revenue it generates by claiming eligible incentives against its income tax liability and/or wage assessments.
“HANDLE is proud to be a part of such a strong health care state,” said Kyle Green, a health care veteran who worked with multiple health care systems in the state, founded HANDLE and today serves as CEO. “HANDLE will be looking to forge a stronger health care supply chain in our state and our country by bringing order to chaos.”
Front Row Seat to Ingenuity
Kentucky’s innovation ecosystem is poised to do likewise.
Programs such as Venture Connectors in Louisville and Awesome Inc. in Lexington have been around for many years. “There are excellent resources for startups and entrepreneurs in Kentucky,” said Anthony Ellis, who serves the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development as general counsel and also serves as executive director of KY Innovation. “Now we are identifying, connecting and supporting those assets more at another level, as well as more effectively marketing the great success of our entrepreneurs.”
The organization aims to be the central hub for small business support, connecting founders, investors, innovators and small business owners to “the right sources of connections, collaborators and capital to help companies imagine, launch, grow and scale.”
As an attorney, Ellis has not only counseled Fortune 500 firms and entrepreneurs, he’s led his own startups. He knows the challenges founders face, from learning how to run payroll to dealing with cybersecurity, liability and fundraising laws. Those challenges grew greater as the pandemic hit just as he stepped into his new role. But it gave him a front-row seat to watch those companies do what they do best.
“Our startups have exemplified Governor Beshear’s ‘Team Kentucky’ philosophy through their willingness and ability to meet the challenges of the pandemic,” he said. “They have also validated the Governor’s belief that innovation can lead our recovery and drive Kentucky’s economic future.”
That includes HANDLE Global.
“HANDLE is an example of a company within the Ecosystem that quickly pivoted to address the PPE needs of Kentucky’s healthcare providers during the early stages of the pandemic,” said Ellis. “The passion and leadership they demonstrated during that period and the connections and reliability they established have positioned them well as we begin our recovery from the pandemic. We look forward to their future growth here in Kentucky.”
Making connections with those “first buyers” is as important as cementing ties with investors, Ellis says, and is something KY Innovation will be focusing on even more in the coming months, so that startups like HANDLE or Liberate Medical (which helps people get off ventilators) can one day grow into companies like Kentucky-based Humana or Appriss. That means focusing on industry clusters and facilitating innovation via a family of KY Innovation Hubs throughout the state (see map).
“HANDLE is not an isolated success story,” Ellis said. “Startups and entrepreneurs are flourishing across Kentucky, and our innovation hubs and support organizations are equipped to help them access resources they need to rapidly thrive and scale.”
GroWest Kentucky - Paducah
The GroWest partnership includes Sprocket (Paducah), The Innovation Station (Madisonville), Murray State University’s Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Development (Murray). The network offers co-working and maker spaces, mentorship programs and a variety of other services. Sprocket recently launched the West Kentucky Innovation Challenge that awards ideas to address needs in Agritech and other sectors.
Notable Startups: PreventScripts, Kalleo Technologies
Blue North - Covington
BlueNorth connects Northern Kentucky entrepreneurs with programs and services, such as resource wayfinding, investor office hours, and the CO.STARTERS business accelerator curriculum. BlueNorth has recently launched the Supply Chain Meetup, which focuses on developing one of the region’s strengths.
Notable Startups: CloverLeaf, Ulimi
Awesome Inc. - Lexington
Awesome Inc. partners with the University of Kentucky Office of Technology Transfer and Base110 co-working space to provide services including direct mentorship, coding education, a fellowship accelerator program, workspace for entrepreneurs and events, such as the popular 5 Across pitch competition. UK OTC recently initiated the LaunchBlue accelerator.
Notable Startups: Nymbl Systems, Hippo Manager
Amplify - Louisville
Amplify is the superconnector for the startup community in Kentucky’s largest city. In addition to providing direct mentorship services, the organization’s diverse roster of partners provide access to capital, co-working space and networking events. Amplify - this year in collaboration with Lexington - organized Startup Weekend and just launched a statewide startup job board.
Notable Startups: US WorldMeds, Moolathon
SOAR (Serving Our Appalachian Region) Innovation - Pikeville
The SOAR Innovation team utilizes SOAR’s extensive infrastructure as a service provider and thought leader across East Kentucky to deliver direct counseling, connections to target markets and capital and the CO.STARTERS business accelerator curriculum. They created the first-of-its-kind Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition.
Notable Startups: AppHarvest, New Frontier Outfitters
Central Region Innovation and Commercialization Center (CRICC) - Bowling Green
CRICC operates the Western Kentucky University business accelerator and provides its entrepreneur support experience and resources within Bowling Green, Elizabethtown and the surrounding region.The recently established hub launched a Virtual Management Organization to help startups and scalable access intellectual capital.
Notable Startups: Bluegrass Supply Chain, Venminder
Ellis said corporate buy-in to the KY Innovation strategy has been crucial, and will continue to be so as the Kentucky team pursues the blend of startup ecosystem and industry clusters that Gov. Beshear has focused on since taking office, including logistics, food and beverage, advanced manufacturing, health care and an Agritech cluster that has produced companies such as Nasdaq-listed AppHarvest in eastern Kentucky.
Startups are used to talking about scaling, but AppHarvest’s numbers set a new bar. The company’s flagship 60-acre controlled environment agriculture facility in Morehead — one of the largest high-tech greenhouses in the world — started rolling out Beefsteak tomatoes in January 2021, and is expected to produce about 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually from about 720,000 tomato plants, a mix of Beefsteak and “Tomatoes on the Vine.” The company has two more facilities under construction — a similar 60-plus-acre facility outside Richmond, Kentucky, and a 15-acre facility to grow leafy greens in Berea, Kentucky — and plans a total of 12 farms by the end of 2025 across Kentucky and Central Appalachia.
The team at KY Innovation knows ventures like that always start from a seed. And they’re ready to support it at every turn, through the three foundations of university research, the six regional hubs and youth entrepreneurship.
“The Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs has the largest number of applications in its history,” said Ellis of the program created in 2013 and hosted at Northern Kentucky University. “This is yet another reason to be enthusiastic about Kentucky’s future.”
Puckett said progress by companies like HANDLE Global through the continuum of services “demonstrates what’s possible in Kentucky and what vibrant startup communities can do for founders with great ideas and vision.”
KY Innovation, in other words, is operating like a startup should, making the connections that lead to prosperity.