Tom Eblen: Lexington could be a petri dish for growing new companies

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 6, 2012 

The Lexington Venture Club's annual celebration of local entrepreneurs last week had a '70s disco theme, but it was all about the future of economic growth in Central Kentucky.

As a couple hundred people mingled beneath glittering disco balls at Buster's Billiard & Backroom on Manchester Street, Warren Nash, director of the University of Kentucky's Lexington Innovation & Commercialization Center, reported some encouraging statistics.

The 78 early-stage companies surveyed by the Lexington Venture Club reported receiving $69.9 million in funding last year, the most since statistics started being kept in 2005. The biggest source of that funding was so-called angel investors — people willing to risk their own money on other people's good ideas.

Those 78 companies produced revenues of $127.2 million in 2011 — up 35.3 percent from the previous year. And they employed 780 people (605 full-time and 175 part-time) with an average annual full-time salary of $65,651. Those employees included 279 people (182 full-time and 97 part-time) hired last year — a 16.2 percent increase over 2010.

"You represent the future of Lexington and our country," UK President Eli Capilouto, one of the few people in the room wearing a tie, told the entrepreneurs.

What is always fascinating about this annual event, organized by Commerce Lexington, is the diversity and creativity of these entrepreneurs and how most of them are trying to leverage new technology to solve old problems.

Nearly half of the 78 companies the Venture Club focused on are in biotechnology and health care fields, with the next largest clusters involving software, information technology and advanced manufacturing.

The program included videos highlighting three companies:

■ Seikowave uses special optics to make quick, three-dimensional measurements for applications as diverse as auto parts, dental implants and video games.

■ CoPlex Therapeutics is developing therapies that the company thinks can prevent Alzheimer's disease. Like Seikowave, CoPlex Therapeutics grew out of technology developed by UK researchers.

■ SoJo Studios, an entertainment company that creates social games on Facebook to finance real-world development projects in the United States and Haiti. The company's Wetopia game recently received endorsements from entertainers Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber.

Many other local start-ups are just as fascinating. Rick Gersony of Medmovie.com told me how he has combined his interests in art and medicine to develop online medical animations for doctors and patients. And Subodh Das of Underground Recovery LLC is developing technology to recover valuable metals from urban landfills and industrial sites.

Wes Keltner is a local marketing guy whose company, Gun, has become one of the nation's largest consultants for video-game makers. "That's right; we play video games for a living," he said. Michael Hartman's Frogdice has become a leading independent developer of video games and virtual environments.

Mayor Jim Gray told the entrepreneurs that he wants Lexington — like Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo. — to become known as a city that nurtures out-of-the-box thinking and the entrepreneurial companies that result from it.

Gray read from an email he received recently from Ezra Roizen, a California investment banker on the board of the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business who spent some time in Lexington recently.

"Lexington has many of the key ingredients for being a hub of entrepreneurship and innovation: a great university, comfortable college town environment, access to capital and a draw for global leaders through the horse community — those are real strengths, and it means you will grow great people, and great people like to come here," Rosen wrote.

"Entrepreneurs like to be around smart people, they need to be around money, and they enjoy being in a nice place. San Francisco has these things, but it's not the only place. Cities like Austin and, more recently, Boulder have built world-class entrepreneurial ecosystems," he wrote.

"But it's in the ecosystem. It's not one thing; it's not a single person or a shiny, new tech park or a loan program. It's a community and a way of life."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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