UK students win innovation challenge

By Anyssa Roberts| @KyKernel

Alltech issued a challenge to UK, University of Louisville and University of Pikeville students last year to propose an array of economic development solutions for eastern Kentucky.

A panel of independent entrepreneurs and private investors selected UK as the $10,000 winner of the Alltech Innovation competition among all three universities.

Alltech founder and president Dr. Pearse Lyons said the first place prize money was the same amount with which he used to start Alltech, now an almost $1 billion company focused on the animal health and nutrition industry.

The teams were challenged to focus on the nine Eastern Kentucky counties of Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike.

Jordan Denny, Lee Goatley, Jordan Laycock and Jarrod Willis, all students in UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, formed TerraCast Technologies in late November when they were first faced with the challenge.

“Lexington needs to grow her own jobs,” Lyons said. “Our young people have lots of ideas, and if we can present a forum to them where they could express the ideas and explore the ideas, then those ideas become even more powerful in the hands of an entrepreneurial person that sees things others do not see.”

The idea to start the competition in Kentucky began when Lyons invited the president of the University of Pikeville, former Gov. Paul Patton, to see what could be done about the economy in Eastern Kentucky.

While Kentucky hits just above the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, at 8.1 percent recorded in December, some counties have seen unemployment rates at above 13 percent, according to Gatton’s website.

“Through other school projects I have learned about the need for economic development in that region of the state,” Goatley said. “I took on the challenge because I knew that my group and I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about business development and to work with a wonderful group of people.”

The team used funds to test research by UK professors Sue Nokes and Michael Montross from the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.

Both recently were granted $7 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further their investment in switchgrass research.

TerraCast Technologies realized the potential in the switchgrass concept, so it was selected for developing the business plan.

At the competition in January, with exclusive rights to technology developed by the two UK professors, TerraCast Technologies introduced a plan that would target 104,925 acres of reclaimed mountaintop land in the nine Eastern Kentucky counties.

Organic, sustainable, perennial and drought-tolerant, the switchgrass would provide additional income for Eastern Kentucky farmers, who would be contracted to seed and harvest.

“We felt great about the plan we developed and the presentation we gave, so we had our fingers crossed,” Denny said. “Moving forward we are continuing to work on the plan to improve it.”

The team hopes to compete in competitions in the future, including the UK Venture Challenge, the university’s annual business competition for student entrepreneurs taking place Saturday.