Tom Eblen

People laughed, but he made Kentucky a player in space. What he sees for the future.

Kris Kimel, who founded the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. in 1988, is retiring this month to focus on helping develop Space Tango, a company that handles experiments for clients on the International Space Station. KSTC had a big role in starting Kentucky's growing space industry.
Kris Kimel, who founded the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. in 1988, is retiring this month to focus on helping develop Space Tango, a company that handles experiments for clients on the International Space Station. KSTC had a big role in starting Kentucky's growing space industry.

As founding president of the non-profit Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and creator of the Idea Festival, Kris Kimel has spent three decades pushing innovation as the way to build Kentucky’s economy for the future.

Kimel, 67, retired Wednesday from KSTC to spend more time as chairman of one of the companies he helped create: Lexington-based Space Tango, which manages micro-gravity research for clients aboard the International Space Station. He was succeeded by Terry Samuel, a Lexmark veteran and longtime KSTC board member who has been the organization’s chief operating officer for a year.

Kimel still has a lot of good ideas about how to make Kentucky more successful in the 21s century and beyond. And they’re not just rocket science.

“I think Kentucky is capable of really great things,” he said. “We just need to be able to imagine those things and go after them. We need to be far more curious, far more innovative and take on big ideas.”

That’s what KSTC has done since 1988, when it was created by Kimel and Lee T. Todd Jr., a technology entrepreneur who would later spend a decade as president of the University of Kentucky.

KSTC is an independent, nonpartisan partner to business and government, pushing new ideas and strategies. Its work helped lead to the 1999 Kentucky Innovation Act, which among other things created successful college-prep programs in high schools across the state.

KSTC also created the non-profit Kentucky Space initiative in 2006, which along with Morehead State University’s space science program put the state out front in emerging commercial space industries, from low-gravity research to small satellites.

“When we first announced Kentucky Space, people literally laughed,” Kimel said. “But we are now a global player and leader in an area that everybody else hasn’t been doing for 30 years.”

And that is something Kentucky must do more of.

“It’s like any entrepreneurial endeavor,” he said. “Artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, that’s what they do. They find things that solve a problem and provide them an opportunity to do something that everybody else isn’t doing that could be game-changers.”

While Kentucky has made economic progress in recent decades, so has every other state. Why hasn’t Kentucky done better? Kimel thinks leaders in business and government are too risk-averse, too afraid to fail. They need to get over it.

“The key to real innovation and transformational change is you’ve got to be able to fail fast, cheap and a lot,” he said. “Most things you try are going to be failures, and you’ve got to be OK with that. That’s the key to making progress.”

Kimel said Kentucky’s leaders should think about economic development as they would a personal investment portfolio. It needs three parts: safe investments, investments for moderate growth and “the high-risk, high-return piece.”

“One of the big challenges we’ve always had in Kentucky is that people tend to pit these things against each other, but you need them all,” he said.

“It’s not that you say, ‘This company makes door knobs so we don’t want them,’ because those are jobs for people,” he added. “But you also want to have the company that’s doing research on a new kind of door that doesn’t have door knobs. That’s where the money is, in the research and development.”

Kentucky leaders must realize that whole industries of the future have not been invented yet. For example, he said, people would not have dreamed, a little more than a decade ago, that there would be a multibillion-dollar industry in creating iPhone apps, because there was no iPhone then.

One challenge for the future is to imagine what is now unimaginable. Kimel said it begins with education, because economic success isn’t just about science, math and technology, but also the liberal arts and humanities.

“Apple is a perfect example of a company that was able to synthesize technology, business, design, culture, the arts, humanities to create customer experience,” he said. “You need people to imagine the applications, not just the hardware, not just the software. You have to have people who are imaginative and creative. Those can be scientists and engineers, but they also can be artists and designers and poets.”

That kind of creative diversity has been at the heart of the Idea Festival, which Kimel started in Lexington in 2000 as one of the first of its kind in the world and moved to Louisville in 2006 for more sponsorship opportunities. The festival has been popular, and it has raised Kentucky’s profile as a place for ideas. But as more such festivals have been created, and TED Talk videos have become popular, the Idea Festival has struggled to attract top speakers because their fees have skyrocketed.

Kimel said Kentucky’s initial success in commercial space has a lot of potential. He also sees opportunity in developing smart machines and new food production science. But the thing is, nobody knows what the economic game-changers will be 10 years from now, much less in 50 years.

“We’re still just scratching the surface in so many things,” he said. “If you’re going to be transformational, it’s going to come from those crazy ideas. It’s those unimaginable things that change the world.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen