Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Entrepreneurial guru encouraged by state's potential

Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, R.I., spent two days in Lexington and Louisville last week talking with entrepreneurs, the cities' mayors and others about entrepreneurship and innovation. Photo Provided
Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, R.I., spent two days in Lexington and Louisville last week talking with entrepreneurs, the cities' mayors and others about entrepreneurship and innovation. Photo Provided

Wait for others to do it, and it won't get done. That old saying might not have the same ring to it as "United we stand, divided we fall," but it could just as easily be Kentucky's motto.

Increasingly, technology- enabled entrepreneurs are taking a different path. Rather than waiting for big companies, government or established organizations to figure out how to build a 21st-century economy in Kentucky, they're trying to do it themselves.

They received some encouragement last week from one of the nation's popular entrepreneurship gurus, Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, R.I.

During a whirlwind 28-hour trip, Kaplan met with city and business leaders in Lexington and Louisville. He talked to entrepreneurs and business students in both cities, and to some who drove in from as far away as Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Kaplan created the non-profit Business Innovation Factory in 2005 as a laboratory for entrepreneurs working on "areas of high social impact," such as health care, education and energy. Before that, he was a strategy consultant in the health care industry and executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp.

Kaplan's trip to Kentucky was organized by Eric Patrick Marr of The Lexenomics Group, a non-profit economic development organization. Kaplan donated his time, and Randall Stevens of the Lexington business incubator Base 163 paid for his travel.

"The visit was fantastic," Kaplan told me as he was leaving to fly home Tuesday. "I was pleasantly surprised by the momentum here. There's definitely the makings of a very entrepreneur-oriented economy."

Kaplan's message was that innovation and entrepreneurship must be central to any economic development strategy. And like any consultant, he loves buzzwords. His favorites are: connect, inspire and transform.

"You need to get innovators from across all the silos in your community to communicate and collaborate more effectively," he said. The next step is inspiring creative people with stories of successful entrepreneurs. Finally, he said, dramatic transformation is required to create a robust, sustainable economy and address many of society's biggest challenges.

"Incremental change isn't going to create the economic future that this community wants and needs," he said. "How can you turn your community into a real-world lab oratory, a place that celebrates experimentation, where people are willing and able to try new things, to try new ideas ... to determine what works and what doesn't work?"

Elder care in Kentucky is one area ripe for innovative problem solving and entrepreneurship, Kaplan noted. The state has an aging population and a growing health care infrastructure. Plus, Louisville is home to the nation's largest elder-care companies.

"We know that the majority of the elder population want to age in place in their own homes with dignity, but the system wasn't designed that way," he said. "How can we create a new set of solutions and new approaches to do that? Those solutions could create new jobs and businesses."

Kaplan said he sees several assets Kentucky can build on. First, the Lexington-Louisville-Northern Kentucky region is big enough to have a critical mass of important assets, but it isn't too big.

Second, he said, "It has incredible quality of place. I could see it the minute I left the airport. And quality of place is the best asset any community can have. Everything should be viewed through the lens of how do we enhance and protect that quality of place, and at the same time figure out how to unleash entrepreneurial innovation."

Finally, Kaplan said, the recent elections of Lexington and Louisville mayors with innovative business backgrounds offers a unique opportunity for economic transformation.

"Having spent time with both mayors, I think they get it," he said. "I think they want to catalyze the kind of entrepreneurial economy and community we've talked about here over the past couple of days. If I were living here, I would be optimistic."

Kaplan said top-down economic development planning — the "bring in the big outside company" incentive strategy that Kentucky has failed at more often than it has succeeded — isn't the way of the future.

"Bring the entrepreneur and the innovator to the center of the economic development conversation," he said. "And tie that conversation to solving real social challenges within the community."

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