With the second Shaping Our Appalachian Region conference set to go in Pikeville in May, there is a danger the growing discussion about the future of Eastern Kentucky will turn into a discussion about the future of SOAR.
While an important effort, SOAR is just one initiative designed to help build a more prosperous future for Eastern Kentucky. Our real focus needs to be reaching our full potential as a region.
We have unique opportunities that hold the potential to develop our regional economy into one that is globally competitive. To compete on that level, a regional economy needs to capture a global market segment. The good news is Eastern Kentucky is well-suited to compete in two key global industries.
Aerospace is already Kentucky's leading export industry, and thanks to the innovation going on at Morehead State University's Space Science Center, Eastern Kentucky has an aerospace industry anchor. Morehead's Idea Fest Aerospace in March offered a glimpse into our potential to dominate a segment of this global industry.
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The space science program at Morehead is becoming a nexus of innovation with the potential to add billions to Eastern Kentucky's economy. From supporting missions to the moon to developing the world's first exomedicine program, Eastern Kentucky is poised to become a leader in the aerospace sector.
Health care is another field in which Eastern Kentucky can be more competitive, and it has ties to aerospace. Exomedicine means the study of medical science in zero-gravity environments. The responses of organisms to medications in weightless environments are unknown, meaning it is possible new treatments and drugs can be engineered in space that aren't possible on Earth.
With a growing medical school at the University of Pikeville attracting talented faculty and students, a space-science medicine regional partnership would be a natural way to become more globally competitive as a region.
Rather than seeing each other as rivals, these two institutions of higher learning have the chance to work together to turn Eastern Kentucky into a unique economic powerhouse.
Globally, health care is a trillion-dollar-a-year industry, and even grabbing a portion of that would be worth billions to our region's economy.
It is a well-known fact that Eastern Kentucky has a large number of people who suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes and cancer, and these are the most expensive illnesses to treat.
By combining Morehead's space science capability and Pikeville's medical school with a large pool of prospective recipients for new treatments, we can begin to see the potential our region has to offer the world. New treatments for chronic illnesses would not only help our region, the benefits would spread around the world, while ushering in huge reductions in health-care costs for our government.
Turning ideas into reality requires opportunities plus the right conditions, and today conditions are excellent in Eastern Kentucky. From the establishment of Promise Zones in our region to the efforts like the Kentucky Innovation Network's support of entrepreneurship, innovators can get a head start on turning today's ideas into tomorrow's reality. I know because I'm one of them. Thanks to the Kentucky Innovation Network's support, my startup, Appalachian Aerospace, is working on developing the next generation of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles.
So let's keep the SOAR initiative in perspective. It is a long-term effort, and it can help by facilitating things like better high-speed Internet access to our region.
But it would be wrong to put the success or failure of our region entirely on SOAR's shoulders. That responsibility is ours, and we can meet it only by focusing our regional efforts and partnerships on the future.