Kris Kimel is a co-founder and president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., a nonprofit organization that champions science, education, research and innovation in the commonwealth. Back in 2000, he launched the Idea Festival, a four-day event that each year draws thinkers and philosophers from around the world to Louisville, where they share ideas and innovation.
Kimel talked with Tom Martin about that kind of talent and Lexington's need to attract it.
Tom Martin: We often hear from economic development pros that it's important that we do everything possible to attract and retain talent capable of better positioning our region to compete in the world. Is Lexington doing all it can do to welcome the best and brightest in fields that have futures?
Kris Kimel: Lexington and the rest of Kentucky have made tremendous progress over the past 5 to 10 years in reshaping economic development infrastructure and doing a much better job of understanding the role of talent in growing our economy. So yes, we are doing a much better job.
But we're not going far enough, mainly because it really is all about talent in today's world. If you look at what's happening, whether it be in Kentucky or New York, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Paris or Bangalore, the key things that are driving all of those economies is very, very creative talent. And when we talk about talent in today's world, in the 21st century, it's different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.
Martin: What are some characteristics of that talent today?
Kimel: You are looking for people who are self-starters; for people who understand creative problem solving; for people who have a lot of imagination, because we live in a very, very unpredictable world. That's not something to be afraid of, it's actually something to embrace. We literally can't predict what the next big thing is going to be that is going to transform our lives.
It used to be that the life of an American product was measured in decades. And then it was measured in years. Now we have products whose life may be measured in months or weeks. So it's a very, very different world and we need people not only with the ability to think critically but also with a broad imagination and the ability to act upon that imagination.
Martin: How important is it to accept a certain level of risk?
Kimel: Being able to tolerate risk is very important. A lot of people think of entrepreneurs, for example, as being risk takers. They are, but they are also risk managers. They understand risk. The ability to act on risk and to not be afraid of failure is absolutely essential. Innovation is about failing fast and quickly and cheaply. That's key. You have to be willing to fail. You have to be okay with that and understand that failing fast and cheap is really a learning process more than anything else.
Martin: Lexington has a lot of the cultural and lifestyle amenities that are attractive to the kind of talent we are talking about. How can we further develop and promote those assets?
Kimel: Lexington has a lot of very positive attributes. First of all, it's a great place to live. We have the benefit of having a major university within our midst. It's not that we don't have smart people here; we have very smart people in Kentucky and in Lexington. We just don't have enough of them. Because it really is about bringing together and developing a critical mass of information, knowledge and talent.
And what we have to do is focus on growing that critical mass. We certainly are going to have to have a top-rated educational system for us to grow and retain that talent.
We need to have a culture that encourages and accepts risk; a culture that is structured to support people who want to start companies. That means having access to talent, having access to capital and a number of other things that entrepreneurs need. Diversity is critical. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, and these kinds of companies thrive on diversity and talent from all over the place.
Martin: How would you characterize the ability to obtain capital for the startup?
Kimel: The capital is there. It's never easy, certainly. But Lexington is really well positioned in terms of capital. Now, some of that capital does not often find its way to entrepreneurial companies because we live in a region of the country that has an economy that has been based on pretty traditional industries: real estate, banking, finance, etc.
And in many of those cases people who have been successful are not that familiar or comfortable with investing in riskier innovation-driven companies, or with actually putting their money into a venture fund which in a sense is like putting it into a blind pool. A lot of people in Kentucky and in Lexington aren't comfortable with that. I think the capital is here, but it's linking that capital with companies and innovative products that may be as much of a challenge as anything.
Martin: Do we have enough diversity in our economic base and if not, how would you expand it in ways that would attract this talent that we are talking about?
Kimel: Our economy is becoming more diverse in many ways. But it is still dominated by some of the more traditional industries. I'm not suggesting that's a bad thing at all, but at the same time, where you see the kind of growth we're going to need in Lexington, it's coming from very, very different kinds of new industries, new kinds of companies that are often innovation-driven. For example, the iPhone app industry, which began not that long ago, has grown into a $25 billion industry. There's an industry that didn't even exist 5 years ago.
Unfortunately, many of those ideas and those imaginative companies and products are not happening in Lexington or in Kentucky. And we're going to need to see much more of that if we are going to be successful.
Martin: Kentucky has been burdened for many generations by a certain amount of anti-intellectualism. Do you feel that we have emerged from that?
Kimel: It's a lot better now across Kentucky. If anything, I see more of a problem with us being just a little bit too comfortable, particularly in Lexington. Lexington is indeed a nice place to live and there are a lot of good things happening here and that leads to a certain kind of comfort that is good in many ways, but also dangerous. You never want to become complacent in today's world.
Martin: Why does innovation matter?
Kimel: Hardly a good day goes by that you don't pick up a newspaper and see some sort of new development or new invention. In that kind of world you have to be on your toes. You cannot rely on what you did yesterday. You really have to rely on what's going to happen tomorrow.
And this innovation, because it's happening so quickly, is rapidly transforming all sorts of industries. For example, there was a recent article in the Atlantic Magazine that indicated that in the decade preceding 2009, the manufacturing sector discarded 70 years of previous gains in jobs. A lot of that was certainly due to the shifting of the economy. But a lot of it also is the result of innovation in manufacturing and the fact that more and more manufacturing jobs are being done by robots and other types of automated systems.
Martin: This technological turnover that we are experiencing is happening at a blinding speed. The smart device was not a part of our life in such a pervasive way only 5 years ago. Looking ahead 3 to 5 years, do you see an equally significant turnover in technology that will change life in ways that the mobile device has already?
Kimel: I don't think there's any question. Back in the late 80s, venerable Smith Corona had its best year ever. And it wasn't 4 or 5 years later that they filed for bankruptcy. It wasn't because they didn't have smart people or because they didn't have a solid company. They could not imagine a world without typewriters. I think all of us face that challenge.
Anyone who thinks they can tell you where we're going to be in 3, 4 or 5 years is mistaken. I don't think we really know.
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.