New grant promises healthier future for innovations

Major new funding was awarded to Northern Kentucky for health innovation from the Department of Commerce. What will it mean in the long run?

To its residents, Northern Kentucky may seem like a low-key place. But when one attribute in the region is catching the attention of national powerhouse names like Stanford and MIT, clearly more may be going on around them than people realize.

The topic that is drawing all the attention is entrepreneurship, specifically efforts in the health innovation sector. In December, a proposal to launch a Northern Kentucky Health Innovation Initiative became the first project from Kentucky to win funding from the federal i6 Challenge program, a fifth-year competition run by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to stimulate regional innovation strategies.

Northern Kentucky is not known for health innovation – yet.

But Casey Barach, who helped bring the parties to the table in support of the grant bid, sees a number of factors coming together that could create an entrepreneurial boom in the sector.

After losing out with a bid in 2017 that they concluded was too broad, leadership decided to try again in the 2018 competition with a specific focus, and health innovation made total sense.

“We thought it was important to have a university partner and to have an industry partner,” says Barach, the senior vice president of the Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development Corporation (Tri-Ed), the regional body that works to enhance and promote business opportunities in Northern Kentucky. “It was a matter of ‘Look around – we have NKU getting $100 million for a (Health Innovation) building and starting a program and we have St. Elizabeth, one of the most progressive healthcare systems in the region, wanting to be involved.’ It was just this natural thing, like you could see two or three rivers all coming together.”

That confluence will now be enhanced by more than $1.4 million in funding. The i6 Challenge grant awarded the region $731,250, a figure that was then matched by local funds. Added in on top of that will be additional funds available from a $750,000 grant awarded earlier in 2018 from the KY Innovation’s RISE program in support of entrepreneurial efforts in health innovation and two other fields, which was again matched by local funding, and you have a groundwork in support of new health ventures that has never before been more promising.

The next step to success, Barach believes, will be determining what one or two niche areas within health innovation fit most naturally with Northern Kentucky’s strengths.

“I can assure you we are not going to try to be all things to all people in the healthcare field,” says Barach, who will serve the Health Innovation Initiative as its project manager. “We want to determine what space we can win in and then we want to develop in that area.”

Many voices who support Northern Kentucky entrepreneurship are at the table, and a number of resources will be available to help answer those questions. Besides Tri-Ed and its Entrepreneurship Council, primary partners in the program are NKU’s Institute of Health Innovation and St. Elizabeth Healthcare. The Northern Kentucky Area Development District is on board and among its contributions will be to specifically serve as a familiar partner representing the initiative to the five rural counties – Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Owen and Pendleton – that are included among the eight counties that will be served by the Health Innovation Initiative. So is UpTech, the well-established startup accelerator located in Covington.

Another interesting partner in the project is a long way from Kentucky, and that would be MIT – specifically, that university’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (MIT REAP). Dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship around the world, Kentucky became the first U.S. participant when it was accepted last year as a member of the sixth cohort to work with the center in reaching goals to measure and determine evidence-based, practical approaches to regional challenges. Barach is among the 12 team members from Kentucky working directly with the MIT program.

Room for growth in health innovation exists in Kentucky, both by measurements within the state and against other bordering states. In 2018, Kentucky ranked 45th nationally in overall health quality in rankings compiled by the United Health Foundation, including a ranking of 47th in health outcomes. The disparities in access to care are wide when looking at the state’s urban centers, including Northern Kentucky, and its many rural counties, so digital innovation to help bridge that gap is the sort of possibility that could present health innovation opportunities.

When looking at economic impact from health entrepreneurship, Kentucky also lags. In data from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Kentucky enterprises received $169 million in bioscience venture capital investments between 2014-2017. That compares to totals over the same time period of $241 million in Indiana and $806 million in Ohio. The leading 11 states on the list all attracted more than $1 billion in bioscience venture capital in that same four-year period.

Where Northern Kentucky is likely to find traction will be in applied health innovation projects rather than ideas related to basic medical research, according to Dr. Valerie Hardcastle, NKU’s St. Elizabeth Healthcare Executive Director for the Institute for Health Innovation and Vice President for Health Innovation.

“Healthcare is the third-largest regional industry here, and it’s one we know is slated to grow exponentially over the next decade, at the least,” says Hardcastle. “We have a tremendous shortage of workers in healthcare, not just the clinical people but also those in support. So the goal is to try and help address those issues as well as, in addition, that Kentucky is a very unhealthy state, so this is a good place to target the healthcare industry.”

NKU is already excelling in a number of health professions, and last year opened its new Health Innovation Center as a center for growth of existing NKU health programs. The NKU campus will also provide classroom space for the University of Kentucky College of Medicine – Northern Kentucky Campus, which is expected to welcome its first class of students this coming fall. That is obviously another major development on the Northern Kentucky healthcare stage, and will be operated in partnership with St. Elizabeth Healthcare and NKU.

Along with education will come ideas, and NKU’s Institute for Health Innovation is expected to be a key expert resource for the Health Innovation Initiative. The institute is focusing on aspects related to three identified areas of need in Kentucky – solutions for chronic illness, social determinants of health and development of future health leaders.

“Our focus, I believe, is going to be on providing better and more innovative approaches to healthcare,” Hardcastle says in explaining NKU’s view towards the Health Innovation Initiative. “And this can be everything from new ways of delivering medical care, like through tele-health, which on the one hand, sounds like an absolutely fabulous idea, particularly given that most of Kentucky is rural. But on the other hand, maybe it's not a fabulous idea because, for example, in Owen County, which is part of Northern Kentucky, only 55 percent of the people in that county have access to the Internet.”

Hardcastle’s point is that applied healthcare solutions are complicated by local factors that depend on where you are in Kentucky. However, that diversity of conditions in the long run could ultimately end up being a strength of the value that Northern Kentucky develops as a healthcare center of innovation.

Intractable problems exist and they demand innovative solutions. Ultimately, she believes, the mix of NKU’s areas of expertise, St. Elizabeth’s presence as a major healthcare provider across the entire region and the diversity of the Northern Kentucky region will create the sparks necessary for the growth of health innovation.

“The demographics of Northern Kentucky are a strong point, because what you want to do when you're developing health innovation is try to create something that's going to work in any environment, whether that be an urban environment, a suburban environment or a rural environment,” Hardcastle says. “Within the Northern Kentucky region, we have all of that. We really are a microcosm of the United States. And so if you can get something to work in Northern Kentucky, then you can be very sure it's going to work most places in the United States.”

Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.