MSU aiming for the stars in East Kentucky

Johnathan Gay

May 7, 2014

Think of Kentucky and what comes to mind? Corvettes, bourbon, thoroughbreds, aerospace… wait aerospace? Yes, believe it or not, Kentucky’s biggest export industry last year was aerospace products.

In 2013, Kentucky exports of aerospace products and parts exceeded $23 billion, the highest of any single sector in the bluegrass. In fact, aerospace exports ranked ahead of even motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts — combined. These industries exported a combined tally of $5.1 billion worth of products last year. Not too shabby, but not in the same league with aerospace.

Think of East Kentucky and what comes to mind? Coal, natural gas, tourism, the medical industry … space science? Not quite … yet. But if economic developers in the Morehead region have their way, someday soon, in the not too distant future, that’s exactly what you’ll think.

See, Morehead State is quietly building a first-class space science program. It consists of world-class faculty and staff, and eager students from all over Kentucky and the world. The program is anchored around a $15.6 million support facility containing classrooms, laboratories and offices. (That building is named in honor of a couple of Martin County leaders, Jim Booth and Elmer Smith.)

The challenge for economic developers is to take existing successes like the ones described above, to somehow make sense of the potential, and to then help connect the dots in such a way that leads to economic growth. Two themes are key to this equation: networking and education.

Last week in Morehead, the Kentucky Innovation Network and the MSU Space Science Center took a step towards doing both when our programs came together to hold Kentucky’s first ever conference devoted to understanding the aerospace economy in Kentucky — particularly, to understanding the space science aspect of that economy.

To get a sense of the potential, consider our first two speakers:

First up was Brad Thomas of the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet. Brad is one of the folks in economic development who crunches numbers like the ones described above. His research tells him – and informs folks like the governor of the Commonwealth — where we are seeing success. Brad is one of the guys crowing the loudest about our growing aerospace industry. He’s also a big proponent of economic clusters.

Per Wikipedia, “a business cluster is a geographic concentration of interconnected businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions in a particular field.” What’s the big deal? “Clusters are considered to increase the productivity with which companies can compete, nationally and globally.” In other words, birds of a feather flock together. Think Silicon Valley! Similarly positioned companies collaborate with one another, utilize one another’s services, and attract support businesses that shorten and simplify their supply chains. Think Toyota and its parts suppliers dotting Kentucky’s landscape. The benefit for Kentucky to encouraging this sort of thing? More jobs!

Next up, MSU Professor Bob Twiggs. With a presentation entitled “The Next Big Thing is Small.” Bob Twiggs laid out the potential for microsatellite development in Morehead. Professor Twiggs isn’t just another faculty member. He’s the inventor of the microsatellite that’s revolutionizing space: the “Cube Sat.”

Professor Twiggs talked about the fact that Morehead students aren’t just learning the abstract lessons of outer space. MSU actually has students designing satellites! For space! Helping launch the satellites! And then tracking them! From MSU!

The state’s challenge as workforce developers has already been met … in spades! Now, our challenge must be to capture more of these students and keep them in Morehead. The critical ingredient to this: entrepreneurship! It alone will allow companies to grow up in Eastern Kentucky that have expertise in this critical industry. The pieces are already in place in Kentucky. Now, it’s incumbent on us to help nurture them along to the benefit of our region’s economy.

Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. He provides free business consulting to clients in MSU’s service region. The opinions here are his own.