UK students win Alltech Innovation competition

bfortune@herald-leader.comJanuary 19, 2013 

A team of University of Kentucky students won the Alltech Innovation competition Saturday with a plan to take reclaimed strip-mined land in Eastern Kentucky and grow switchgrass to create butanol for use as a gasoline additive, replacing ethanol.

The team of four graduate students, all working on their masters of business administration, won $10,000 for the first place finish.

In May, Alltech president and founder Pearse Lyons issued a challenge to UK, the University of Louisville and the University of Pikeville to come up with plans for creating jobs, particularly in Eastern Kentucky.

After the competition, Lyons expressed delight with the student proposals. "These are very smart kids using local technology to create jobs. That's what we wanted," he said.

The three teams captured the essence of entrepreneurship, he said, "with bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, can't-we-go-ahead enthusiasm. It's wonderful."

Teams at the three rival schools presented their plans to a panel of independent judges Saturday at Alltech's corporate headquarters in Nicholasville.

Moderator Van Clouse told spectators that the students were expected to answer tough questions from the judges as if they were pitching their ideas to venture capitalist investors in real life.

Each team requested the money they would need to start their companies.

The UK project, called TerraCast Technologies, uses research by two university professors — Sue Nokes and Michael Montross — from the department of of Food and Bioprocess Engineering. The pair recently won a $7 million U. S. Department of Agriculture grant to do further research on switchgrass. The university is seeking patent protection on their findings.

Start-up costs for the butanol project were estimated at $640,000. The team, made up of Lee Gage Goatley, Jarrod Willis, Jordan Denny and Jordan Laycock, asked for an investment of $300,000.

The other two projects were:

University of Louisville students proposed mixed-income, single family modular homes, to be built by the Stardust Cruiser houseboat company in Monticello and would create approximately 122 jobs. The energy-efficient houses would sell for $110,000.

The student company, EcoVision, is utilizing design work already done by the UK College of Design in partnership with Kentucky Highlands Investments.

Modular house benefits include faster construction time than traditional houses and consistent construction quality. The houses, while more expensive than mobile homes, would qualify families for Section 8 funding, not available to mobile home owners.

To build eight prototype modular houses, the student team projected start up costs of $640,000. They asked for an investment of $300,000, offering investors 65 percent equity in the project.

Team members were Kaysara Mandry, Evan Holladay, Scott Norris and Mike Buchberger.

The University of Pikeville students' plan, Appalachian Artisan Foods, proposed building three-tier aquaponic greenhouses to grow organic vegetables and fruit, alfalfa and bean sprouts, ginseng and talapia fish.

Students requested $35,000 to defray start-up cost of $110,000 to build and equip one prototype greenhouse that would employ three people.

Pikeville team members were Andrew Kelly, Casey Price, Jan Hunt, Gary Justice and Jeremy Gist.

Most fruits and vegetables eaten by people in Eastern Kentucky travel at least 2,000 miles from fields in California, Mexico and Honduras. Travel costs are expensive and nutrients are lost in travel time, team members said in justifying their project, which would help Eastern Kentuckians eat healthier.

Their marketing plan called for selling fish and produce to a regional grocery chain with 104 stores, to Aramark which runs the university's food service and to a Prestonsburg restaurant.

The U of L team finished second and was awarded $6,000; Pikeville U placed third and won $4,000.

Rick Miller, a judge from Bluegrass Angels, a group of individuals who invest in start up companies, said all three projects had real-life potential. "The quality of the presentations was excellent," he said.

Miller would like to see more teams participate next year.

Lyons told the students to feel free to come back , have a cup of coffee and talk over their ideas with him. He said perhaps Alltech could make "some small financial input" to help make their plans a reality.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251.Twitter: @BFortune2010

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