Tom Eblen: Contest sows seeds for new businesses

There are three basic approaches to building business in Kentucky: attract 'em, keep 'em, grow 'em. Success requires all three. But over the years, state officials often have focused so much attention on the first two that they have neglected the third.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. has worked on that third approach since 1968, helping home-grown entrepreneurs create more than 10,000 jobs in its 22-county Appalachian service area.

Now the corporation's efforts are turning it up a notch. Kentucky Highlands is opening a new business- incubation center this fall beside its headquarters near London, and it is sponsoring a contest for Kentucky entrepreneurs who have big ideas that could become successful companies.

"We're hoping to bring some of these entrepreneurs out of the woodwork," said Jim Carroll, executive director of the new center.

Kentucky Highlands announced six winners last week among 47 entrants in the first phase of its Big Idea Competition. Each winner received a $1,000 cash prize based on a one-page outline of the idea and a business model.

Kentucky entrepreneurs and small business are now being solicited to enter the second phase of the contest. That involves submitting a three- to six-page executive summary of an idea along with business, marketing, sales and financial plans. Three winners of this phase will receive $2,500 cash prizes. Entries are due Aug. 20.

The final phase will involve oral presentations this fall. The winner will receive $10,000 cash and 12 months of free rent in the Kentucky Highlands Business Innovation and Growth Center. Two runners-up will receive prizes of $5,000 and $2,500 and offers of free work space in the center for six months.

For more information, go to Kentucky Highlands' Web site — — and look for the Big Idea Competition links.

Winners of the competition's first phase were a diverse group:

■ Awesome Labs of Lexington has created technology to turn store windows into interactive touch-screen displays.

■ B2 Solutions of Somerset has developed software to manage documentation required for new products to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

■ Monumental Builders of Jamestown makes a patented product that uses recycled materials to create a cultured-stone concrete block system for construction.

■ NuForm Thermal Management of Sadieville turns coal ash into a ceramic material that can replace chemical flame retardants in insulation.

■ Olde Kentucky Logs of Corbin makes concrete wall facing molded to look like 150-year-old construction logs.

■ of Versailles has developed Web-based software to match health-care facilities with qualified workers.

"We were glad to see that diversity," Carroll said. "We all tend to gravitate toward techy-type things, and it was good to see that (the judges) saw that more traditional types of business have an opportunity to be successful and create jobs."

The competition, which is open to entrepreneurs or businesses with 20 or fewer employees, is being judged by a panel of investors, economic development professionals and representatives of the contest's supporters. Among those supporters are the state Cabinet for Economic Development, Kentucky Science & Technology Corp., Lexington Venture Club, Silicon Hollow Association and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

Among the criteria that judges were asked to consider was each idea's ability to create jobs in Kentucky and generate revenue from outside the state. Those factors have always been a key to Kentucky Highlands' approach to entrepreneurship.

The new-business incubator hopes to help do that by providing office space, technical infrastructure and mentoring to entrepreneurs. The 9,700-square-foot center will rent private suites, cubicles and "rough" work space, and it has two dry labs and two wet labs.

In addition to providing start-up companies with office space, printers, fax machines and other technical support, the center offers mentoring from experienced staff members and a network of volunteer professionals in the region.

"Entrepreneurship is the future of our economy," Carroll said. "We have to focus on growing local companies."