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Johnathan Gay: Like Owensboro’s Ebola drug, what ‘miracles’ are hidden in our mountains?

Kentucky got to see the good that comes out of capitalizing on a region’s strengths last week when the city of Owensboro and its fading-but-still potent tobacco infrastructure gave birth to what many are calling a “miracle drug” to treat Ebola, one of the most dangerous diseases in the world.

In a nutshell, the Owensboro area had long been a thriving hub of tobacco growth and research. Farmers grew the plant in large quantities while designated facilities piloted new species that would, hopefully, one day be grown by the region’s farmers. Eventually, researchers began to identify a new use for the tobacco research: to mass-grow vaccines.

Several companies stepped into that effort, and a massive research facility studying ways tobacco could be used to make vaccines and treatments was spawned. Unfortunately, while the science worked really well, the commercial side lagged. At one point, the entire project was in danger of going under.

The lead company involved in the research was going bankrupt and private support to save it was unsuccessful. That’s when long-time Owensboro politico and entrepreneur Billy Joe Miles stepped in. Using a state-funded agriculture lending agency and assembling a team of local partners, Miles managed to pull together a deal that kept the Owensboro facility open. Eventually, that facility would be used to test a proposed new treatment for Ebola.

So, how can this be applied to Eastern Kentucky?

It all starts with a region’s native strengths. What does Eastern Kentucky have in spades that can’t be quickly or cheaply replicated in other areas? Next, what area industries can leverage these strengths in partnership with global players? Who are the champions that can help make these deals come together? And what can the public sector do to help make it all happen?

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In a way, this is what’s happening in Pikeville with Alltech. In Morehead, thanks to Morehead State University’s investment and partnerships, the space science program is on the cusp of seeing this happen in the private sector.

What other creations lay dormant in these hills just waiting for the right chef (read: entrepreneur) to pull all the ingredients together? What of our vast number of abandoned mines? Could the thousands of miles of underground mine-tunnels be used for scientific research?

What of the possibility of using our tunneling capabilities to identify solutions to problems such as the ones Israel faces in Gaza? Could the region be used to find solutions to such tunnel threats? Could we become a global hub devoted to training police and soldiers in dealing with man-made subterranean passages? The proximity of large airports and relative speed with which you can drive into our region means global players can get into and out of our region quickly.

The ingredients are here in Eastern Kentucky. The entrepreneur/chefs are, too. All that’s missing is a call to action to bring them together.

1 jonathan gay

Johnathan Gay is an attorney and the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. To learn more about the Kentucky Innovation Network or to get involved in entrepreneurial projects, click here.

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