Kentucky Innovator Challenge brings business and higher ed leaders, industry partners to UK


LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 31, 2023) — On April 11, 2023, the inaugural Kentucky Innovator Challenge (KIC) at the University of Kentucky (UK) brought together leaders from business, service organizations and higher education for a one-day summit to identify the most pressing challenges facing Kentucky and discuss collaborative solutions through research and innovation.

This event was developed to forge new relationships and lay the groundwork for innovative solutions addressing the problems of University of Kentucky business partners.

UK Innovate hosted more than 150 participants and 11 industry partners for a full day of five keynote addresses, two federal program overviews, three presentation tracks with 15-minute TED Talk-style presentations and a special guest.

The morning kicked off with a welcome from UK Innovation Connect Executive Director Landon Borders, followed by keynote addresses by UK Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis and Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development Secretary Jeff Noel and an overview of the Advance Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) from Deputy Director of Operations and COO Shane Kosinski.

“This was truly a special day for Kentucky and our diverse innovation ecosystem of industry, community, government, nonprofit, entrepreneurial and academic research partners. I am most delighted by how effectively the programming inspired our audience to discover opportunities to work together in new ways that benefit our Kentucky businesses, and ultimately, our economy,” said Borders. “These new partnerships materialized right there at the event in many cases. Despite the successful outcome, our work is far from over. In fact, we’ve already started planning next year’s event, which we aim to grow bigger and more effectual than this year’s event.”

The first track focused on materials, energy and logistics with presentations from leaders of EcoFibre, Wieland North American, Logan Aluminum Inc., Metals Innovation Initiative (MI2), PPL Corporation and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).

“The Kentucky Innovator Challenge over-delivered on its goals to bring together genuine business problems and well-resourced problem-solvers across the Commonwealth,” said Eric Wang, EcoFibre CEO and managing director. “The event created several new collaboration partners in industries and across the University of Kentucky that I had not expected. The future value of the Kentucky Innovator Challenge cannot be understated.”

Dean Rudy Buchheit presented a spotlight of the UK College of Engineering and an overview on Electrification Mobility Innovation Engine (EMIE), which is a proposal for the second phase of the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines program. The presenters and attendees spent time networking and connecting during lunch.

Afterward, leaders from Houchens Industries Inc., Gray Solutions, Bullard and Lexmark gave presentations during the second track focusing on manufacturing and sustainability.

During Walker Mattox’s presentation special guest SPOT, a four-legged mobile robot, joined Walker on stage. After the final presentation in the second track, Graciela Narcho, deputy assistant director of the National Science Foundation Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), gave an overview of TIPS programs.

“The Kentucky Innovator Challenge strengthened Bullard’s belief in why Kentucky is so special! Our Commonwealth has outstanding universities, incredible talent, and future-focused companies,” said Wells Bullard, president and CEO of Bullard. “We are very optimistic on how we can collaborate to solve real, life-saving problems for our brave customers. From the Kentucky Innovator Challenge, Bullard hopes to gain collaboration partners to bring innovative solution to our brave customers, to advance human safety.”

The third and final track focused on automotive and aerospace innovation with presentations from leaders at Holley, Space Tango and GE Aerospace.

“The University of Kentucky is clearly out in front when it comes to sustainability. It was exciting to see the government, university and business sectors all coming together to share innovation in this area, and working together to create a better future,” said GE Aerospace Executive Chief Consulting Engineer Deborah Whitis.

“It’s important to engage our local community and enable all of us to think bigger. Holley leads our industry in innovation; as such, collaborations across sectors will be increasingly important as we tackle larger challenges,” said Vinny Nimmagadda, EVP, corporate development and new ventures at Holley. “Our experience has been wonderful — from meeting national research groups and learning more about potential funding and collaboration opportunities unique to Kentucky to engaging University of Kentucky’s student groups to discuss the growing need for the next generation of problem-solvers excited to tackle opportunities like converting and upcycling existing vehicles from internal combustion to electric powertrains.”

The afternoon wrapped up with Kim Sayre, providing an overview on UK Innovation Connect and her focus area — College of Engineering. Ian McClure, associate vice president for Research, Innovation and Economic Impact and executive director of UK Innovate, presented on Building Innovation Culture: UK Innovate. Landon Borders gave closing remarks. With the event completed, attendees, speakers and presenters engaged with one another during the Networking Reception.

To learn more about the speakers and presenters visit

To see photos from the event, click here.

Kentucky Innovator Challenge 2024 will be held in April 2024. If you are interested in attending or presenting next year, contact the UK Innovation Connect team at

About UK Innovate
UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky is the innovation, entrepreneurship and economic enterprise for University of Kentucky Research. Through technology commercialization, corporate partnerships, social innovation, innovation training and economic development initiatives related to UK’s research innovations, talent and community, UK Innovate works to move ideas into the world faster, where they can make the greatest social and economic impact possible. Learn more at

About UK Innovation Connect
UK Innovation Connect under UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky provides dedicated resources and services to support University of Kentucky research and innovation outcomes that impact corporate partners and promote economic development in our innovation ecosystem. Learn more at

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.