ave you ever had your dentist arrive to your doorstep for a routine cleaning? Used an app on your mobile phone that connects marginalized communities to reliable doctors and healthcare services? Maybe you know where I could find an affordable water quality test kit?
Kare Mobile, Melanated Healthcare and Eastern Scientific are just a few examples of the innovative startups bred in Kentucky.
“Kentucky has always had these great ideas. Kentucky has always had these great startups. But now, having the resources and growing the resources to help them scale, that is the secret sauce. It’s really going to put Kentucky in the lead for being a place to build a scalable business,” said Monique Quarterman, executive director of KY Innovation.
KY Innovation, part of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, aims to do no less than identify, retain, develop and recruit at least 10,000 top-tier entrepreneurs in Kentucky within 10 years.
Dr. Lecresha Sewell, CEO and founder of Melanated Healthcare, set out to address challenges minority communities face accessing adequate health care. She created a digital platform that connects patients to preferred health care professionals while decreasing health disparities that exist in BIPOC communities.
“Kentucky is a place that has always had a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit.”
— Dr. Jason Marion, Professor of Environmental Health Science at Eastern Kentucky University
Sewell founded her business in 2020 and launched her app a year later. Like most entrepreneurs, Sewell had hesitations about bringing her business to life.
As a nurse practitioner and Black woman in America, Sewell is aware of the difficulties many minorities face in gaining access to reliable care.
Despite not knowing if her business would be embraced, let alone receive funding support in the state, Sewell set out to expand her reach and become the first Black woman in Kentucky to execute a business exit from the state. Two years since the app’s launch, Melanated Healthcare has found genuine support from the state and its startup ecosystem.
“I have made invaluable connections, received guidance, resources and some funding opportunities,” says Sewell. “I have established a couple of great partnerships and Melanated Healthcare has been recognized as a solution to address health disparities.”
Much like Sewell, Dr. Jason Marion was hesitant to bring his innovative concept to life.
Dr. Marion is an Environmental Health Science professor at Eastern Kentucky University. Working with students, their families and healthcare professionals in the U.S. and Kenya from 2012 through 2018, he set out to address problems related to water quality assessment in low-resource communities.
“I was somewhat intimidated by the idea and culture surrounding startups from a narrative in my head informed by television shows and brief video clips of sometimes extraordinarily over-the-top extroverts hawking personal innovation products to sharks and the general public,” he said. But encouragement and support from EKU and the state’s startup community, including Kentucky Commercialization Ventures (through KY Innovation) and the Launch Blue accelerator, quickly changed that perspective.
“I got to see their not-so-glamorous minimum viable products that got them their start,” he said, “and also got to learn about how they persisted to success and what resources were available to them to help them succeed, including many resources that remain available to me, including some new resources now available that were not available to them.”
EKU colleague Dr. Lindsay Cormier encouraged Dr. Marion to take his idea to the EKU Board Innovation Fund, created by the EKU Board of Regents to kickstart his business. Today, that idea is now a business, appropriately named Eastern Scientific.
“There was certainly a time where being in Silicon Valley was immensely important, particularly for information technology innovations,” said Marion. “However, in terms of developing creative solutions to the world’s problems, Kentucky is a place that has always had a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit.”
In 2021, Eastern Scientific’s E. coli detecting water testing kit, ColiGlow, won the Global Health Innovation Prize.
Regional Strength, Innovative Business
KY Innovation aims to connect Kentucky residents to institutions, established companies, private lenders, business accelerator and incubator programs in their regions. It’s doing so via six regional KY Innovation hubs operated by Amplify (Louisville), Awesome Inc. (Lexington), Blue North (Covington in northern Kentucky), Central Region Ecosystem for Arts, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CREATE, located in Bowling Green), GROWEST Kentucky (Paducah) and Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR, located in Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky).
More recently, one of KY Innovation’s key strategic partners, Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation (KSTC), introduced the APEX Accelerator. APEX mimics the hub model, helping businesses across the state become government suppliers. Previously called the Kentucky Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, APEX is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense, KSTC and KY innovation. Creating statewide access has been vital to removing barriers for founders, so they can locate resources or mentorship as they consider launching a business.