Innovating ‘Innovation Alley’

Noting that the parking lot adjacent to Innovation Alley has hosted events over the years, the report from Emersion Design said it was “important for the new alley improvements to allow for these grassroots, pop-up activities to continue and thrive. This alley should become a ‘place’ and a ‘path.’ ”

New ‘hub,’ other changes to energize entrepreneurship district 

COVINGTON, Ky. - A new formal partnership with Northern Kentucky University, an influx of expertise and federal money, and $200,000 of planned aesthetic improvements are about to supercharge Covington’s “Innovation Alley” into the region’s new hub for entrepreneurship.
City officials say the changes will bring renewed energy, talent, and purpose to a downtown entrepreneurial district that has a tangible history of success:
In addition to birthing Covington small businesses like Grainwell Market, The Delish Dish, Craft & Vines, and Kickstart Kitchen, the alley and its surrounding area is home to powerhouses like Gravity Diagnostics (which is getting national attention for its timely work with COVID-19 testing) and Bexion Pharmaceuticals (whose ground-breaking work in early-stage cancer treatment may wind up becoming the long-pursued “silver bullet” in that historically frustrating medical mission).
“We all know how companies like Microsoft and Apple started in dorm rooms or garages, so why not an alley in the heart of Northern Kentucky’s largest city as the next hub of innovation and entrepreneurship?” Covington Economic Development Director Tom West said.
“We want to help disruptors do what they do best: create and innovate,” he added. “What’s called ‘Innovation Alley’ itself is just a block long, but the intellectual work and collaboration that’s happening within and around that block has impact far beyond its geographic location.”
“Innovation Alley” - the official branded name of a “district” designated in 2016 via City ordinance as the clustered home of early-stage entrepreneurship - stretches east-west between Russell and Washington streets a half-block north of Pike Street. The buildings that run along the alley front along Pike and use those addresses.

Among the new developments:
The NKU Foundation recently assumed the sublease of 112 Pike St. amid plans to create NKY-HUB, a one-stop, shared-services innovation hub that will accelerate economic growth in the region by helping entrepreneurs access the tools they need to thrive: data, talent, and money.
At least 26 partners have signed on with NKU to help NKY-HUB become a connector for a broad range of groups: entrepreneurs, private-sector leaders, investors, educational programs, “incubators,” “accelerators,” non-profits, government agencies, and economic development organizations.
Covington leases the space from building owner Pikestar LLC. The Covington Board of Commissioners recently approved the transfer of the sublease to the foundation from UpTech, the seed accelerator program started in 2012 that has since closed shop.
Covington City Manager David Johnston said NKU’s arrival was a tribute to the past and a seed for the future.
“NKU is brimming with expertise and ideas. We have long desired to tap into that resource and renew NKU’s presence in the city in which the university started, and this new partnership does exactly that,” Johnston said. “This is just the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.”
NKU will be releasing more details about NKY-HUB and its operations and goals in the coming weeks.
Small-business coach
A “coach” that helps small businesses in Covington with no-cost technical assistance, advising, and training to help them survive the pandemic is now working out of 114 Pike St., the home of Aviatra Accelerators.
The City is helping to fund the office space for the coach, Lisa Brann, who was hired by the Kentucky Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Brann is an experienced CPA and business adviser who previously worked with the NKU SBDC as a small-business coach.
From the City’s end, the immediate goal is to protect its economy and tax base by helping businesses that are facing staffing challenges, losses of customers and gross receipts, reduced hours of operation, and supply chain disruptions.
“SBDC’s business coaches are crucial partners for our small-business community and meet each business owner wherever they are in their entrepreneurial journey,” said Ross Patten, the City’s Economic Development Project Manager who was chosen earlier this year to chair the Kentucky SBDC Advisory Board.
“Right now, business coaches are helping business owners of all sizes overcome COVID-19 operating hurdles, but they are just as important in good economic times to help owners discover new market opportunities and unlock resources to propel business growth,” Patten said.
New targeted program
Aviatra Accelerators, a non-profit that helps women start and sustain businesses, is hoping to start a second round (or “cohort”) of its new, dedicated Women of Color program this fall.
The first round - which took place January through mid-March (when the final-night celebration was interrupted by the pandemic) - attracted 16 participants and received “a lot of positive response,” said Nancy Aichholz, CEO/president of the non-profit. The timing of a second cohort will depend on the loosening of social distancing restrictions related to COVID-19.
The new program is particularly timely, given a new national focus on equality and equity. It complements Aviatra Accelerators’ complete menu of programs, which includes two other cohort groups of 9-10 weeks and others that cater to individuals, including a workshop-based program and one that’s digital.
“Of course, all of our programs are always open to all women, so entrepreneurs do not have to wait for a dedicated cohort if they are ready to go with their business concept,” she said.
Aichholz said the non-profit was thrilled to host the small-business coach and to welcome NKY-HUB to the district.
“We have long awaited a more vibrant innovation scene on our ever-evolving street in Covington,” she said. “We have been strong proponents of the shared-services model for entrepreneurial support organizations, as we all share a similar mission. And the more shared services there are, the more resources can be poured into the entrepreneurs and their businesses.”
Alley improvements
The City continues to look for arts and infrastructure grants to implement recommendations created by Emersion Design to rejuvenate the alley by improving its looks and functionality.
Among the proposed changes are public art, creative lighting plans, outdoor gathering and collaboration spaces, and functional improvements to the brick pavers, wayfinding and other signage.
One of the discussion points thus far is how the juxtaposition of the historic Mother of God Church on the alley’s north side and the entrepreneurs on the south side presents an interesting opportunity to merge the two symbolically with art, and thus pay tribute to Covington’s eclectic nature, West said.
“You have one of the oldest institutions on earth in the Roman Catholic Church, and some of the newest companies on earth with these entrepreneurs, and here in the Cov, where we embrace diversity and have such cool architecture, they can co-exist to each’s benefit,” West said.
The study was recommended by the Covington Economic Development Authority and funded through the city’s Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District.
Pending moves
Meanwhile, Gravity Diagnostics - whose work on COVID-19 testing has been featured over the last few months in publications like Forbes magazine, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal - has outgrown its space in Innovation Alley.
The full-service, state-of-the-art CLIA laboratory began in Covington in 2016 with 20 employees but now has 150 employees in Covington alone, not counting sales staff and specimen “collectors,” said Gravity’s director of marketing, Tessie Bertrams. The company plans “to double that in the next three years,” she said.

Gravity Diagnostics - a tenant of Innovation Alley - has grabbed national attention for its work related to COVID-19 testing. The Covington company is expanding and moving two blocks away. (Photo provided by Gravity Diagnostics.)

Next week, its new lab will be operational at 812 Russell St., two blocks south. Its current lab at 632 Russell will stay open during the transition, Bertrams said.
To help make the $3.7 million expansion possible, West presented the Covington Board of Commissioners with a proposal Aug. 4 for a four-year payroll tax incentive.
“Gravity is doing exactly what the district’s visionaries had hoped: They’ve become so successful that they’ve outgrown their space,” he said.
The Board of Commissioners will vote on the proposal tonight.
West told the commission that another company in Innovation Alley may soon make a similar move.
Entrepreneurship academy
Meanwhile, a few blocks east on Pike Street, the non-profit Renaissance Covington(RCov) has partnered with the Cincinnati-based MORTAR Entrepreneurship Academy to create a local program.

The 15-week program is a crash course in issues and challenges facing small businesses for entrepreneurs, covering topics that include writing a business plan, branding and marketing, finances, legal issues, distribution, operations, and location.
The first cohort, or class, kicks off Aug. 18 with nine participants, said Jill Schneider, the MORTAR Covington program manager for RCov, which works to energize the City’s urban core through creative place-making, community events and programming, and small-business support.
Most of the participants are from Covington and have either launched a new business or have a detailed idea for one.
“At the end, we’re hoping that these entrepreneurs walk away with not only the tools but also the resources to take their businesses to the next level, whether that’s raising capital, opening a pop-up shop or opening retail space,” Schneider said.
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