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Kentucky’s potential for success in a global economy might not be obvious to people who have lived here all of their lives.
Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who heads the animal nutrition company Alltech, says he sees it. And he is convinced it can be achieved if Kentucky invests in education, focuses on scientific innovation and markets its brand.
Lyons is barnstorming the state this week to deliver that message in a series of public lectures. He began Monday in Glasgow, then drove to Murray and Owensboro. He planned six more speeches around the state Tuesday and Wednesday.
Lyons, who started Alltech in Jessamine County 28 years ago, said Kentucky has some of the same advantages that helped launch Ireland’s economy in the 1980s. Both places have about 4 million residents, and their governments and universities are small enough to be accessible.
Lyons thinks Kentucky needs more public-private partnerships to invest in education and innovation. He hopes other companies will join Alltech in funding Margin of Excellence scholarships at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville to attract and retain the bright minds who will create tomorrow’s technology.
Earning a Ph.D. degree often requires a student to study for five years while living on a $20,000 annual university stipend. After graduation, first jobs don’t pay much.
“Who in their right mind would do that?” Lyons asked during a telephone interview on the road between Glasgow and Murray. “Why does Ph.D. have to stand for Poor, Hungry and Driven?”
The Margin of Excellence scholarship provides a $40,000 annual stipend on top of the university money for up to five years, plus an additional $10,000 for published research and another $10,000 if the student stays in Kentucky for three years after graduation.
“We’ve stepped up and done the first one,” which went to UK animal nutrition student Anne Koontz, Lyons said. “We’ve got a couple of people to step up and do the second and third. What we need is like-minded business people and businesses to step up and say, ‘Let’s create the single best Ph.D. program in the world.’”
Lyons, whose company operates in 113 countries, said such scholarships could be an inexpensive way for companies to do critical research.
“You couldn’t hire a technician for $40,000 a year,” he said. “And here you’re going to get the brightest and the smartest focusing on your problem. It’s a no-brainer.”
Technology could allow Kentucky to keep building on traditional strengths, such as agriculture and energy. For example, the horse industry could fund a Ph.D. student interested in figuring out how to capture methane from manure. Coal companies could fund students to study ways to create clean-coal technology by capturing carbon dioxide.
Despite the economic slump, Lyons thinks this is a good time for companies to invest in the future. For example, he said, Alltech has secured government grants to help build a bio-refinery in Springfield that will create energy from renewable cellulose, such as corn cobs, switch grass and kudzu.
“Let’s focus on the problems of Kentucky,” he said. “Let’s focus on making those problems opportunities.”
Good marketing is vital, he said, for a state as well as a company. Lyons thinks Alltech’s sponsorship of the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games will be good for marketing his company — and Kentucky.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to show Kentucky to the world,” he said.
In some ways, Kentucky has a better image abroad than it does in the United States, thanks to such exports as Thoroughbred horses, bourbon whiskey, bluegrass music and what Lyons calls the “super brands” of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Muhammad Ali.
Good marketing sometimes just means taking advantage of small opportunities. Last Friday night, Lyons was back in Dublin for a black-tie dinner to receive the Foundation Day Medal from his alma mater, University College Dublin. But he didn’t go home alone.
That same evening, Alltech sponsored a recital at the Royal Irish Academy of Music by Everett McCorvey and Tedrin Blair Lindsay of UK Opera Theater, along with four UK students who have won the school’s Alltech-sponsored vocal competition.
After the recital, McCorvey said, he secretly arranged to hurry over to Lyons’ event so he could close the dinner by performing a special arrangement of My Old Kentucky Home with University College’s Choral Scholars.
After the performance, Lyons said, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
And it exposed 600 influential people in Ireland to a brand: Kentucky.
The views expressed in this column are those of Tom Eblen, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Column reprinted with permission.