Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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February 01, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Inside the Innovation Campus at Western Kentucky University

What was once a shopping mall is now a thriving facility for entrepreneurs and innovators in Bowling Green, KY.

“We are really good at leveraging things,” explains Buddy Steen, President of the Western Kentucky University (WKU) Research Foundation, Programs Director for the Central Region Ecosystem for Arts, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (CREATE), and Chief Executive Officer at The Innovation Campus at WKU.

For the longtime industry executive, it is his second tour of duty with the university where he is heavily involved in Version 2 of WKU’s plans to utilize a once delipidated but rapidly evolving 285,000 square foot mall it acquired in 2001 as an engine for economic development along I-65 – the headquarters of the Innovation Campus at WKU. The difference between Version 1, where Steen was also involved, and Version 2 is probably best described as a combination of scale built on vision and early success.

Just a little more than an hour north of Nashville, Bowling Green is not only home to WKU with an enrollment of about 20,000 students, but also to General Motors’ Bowling Green Assembly Plant that has been the source of all Chevrolet Corvettes built since 1981. About another hour north on I-65 is Glendale, KY, the location of the joint venture between Ford Motor Company and SK Innovation to build the BlueOval SK Battery Park.

“Today, it’s all about talent,” Steen says, explaining that those regions that can provide a well-trained and prepared workforce will thrive, while those that cannot do so will certainly be less successful.

During several conversations with Steen and Sam Ford, Executive Director of AccelerateKY as well as a consultant, it was difficult to tell which hat they might be wearing during various parts of the conversation. What was clear, however, was the alignment of resources that is providing the momentum to move the region forward, and much of the progress is tied directly to the space available in the former mall.

“CREATE is focused on scalable businesses,” Steen says, adding that the goal is opportunities and jobs in the region. “We have learned that infrastructure is absolutely critical. Without the building, we would be just an acronym.”

CREATE is headquartered at the WKU Innovation Campus and has a second location in Elizabethtown. CREATE co-manages the WKU Small Business Accelerator and hosts 12 centers that are part of the WKU Applied Research & Technology Program (ARTP), an initiative designed to meet the research and technical needs of businesses while also providing novel educational opportunities for students through participation in supervised, hands-on applied research.

While the physical availability of the former mall is an important part of the equation, it is also about the programs that WKU and its partners have launched that are critically important. CREATE, for example, lists 28 partners and/or resources on its website. They range from statewide programs like KY Innovation, Kentucky Small Business Development Center and Advantage Kentucky Alliance to numerous local economic development organizations.

A map of the facility layout (pictured right) shows that a lot of the space is dedicated to the ARTP centers and the WKU Small Business Accelerator, as well as headquarters for several high-growth companies. In addition, 51,000 square feet of space formerly occupied by a Big Lots store is now an engineering and R&D Center for Holley Inc., a Bowling Green-based publicly traded automotive performance company.

In 2022, The Innovation Campus at WKU also launched the WKU Collaborative SmartSpace, a 30,000-square-foot part of the WKU Innovation Campus designed to support creative and strategic talent. Located in a former call center that vacated leased space in the mall and left behind its furniture, that space includes very robust internet access. In the short time that it has been open, the WKU Collaborative SmartSpace is already home to a USC Civic Imagination Incubator, an MIT Open Documentary Lab, a Workforce Participation innovation lab, a recycling consortium that is forming, and meetings of the newly formed Metals Innovation Initiative, not to mention teams from companies like Logan Aluminum and Envision and various start-ups and solopreneurs.

Steen explains that the Collaborative SmartSpace (pictured left) is more than just a real estate play; it’s building a community of collaborators focused around an open concept.

“When you get a swipe card, you acknowledge that you are approachable, collaborative, and willing to share your network,” he says. SmartSpace members get 24/7 secure access to the facility, consistent wireless fiber internet, access to a training room and conference rooms throughout the facility, a work pod for teammates or collaborators who come in for meetings, a storytelling and meeting room at the entrance, and all other amenities that will become available for Innovation Campus tenants.

With such a strong focus on talent needed to enhance the economic development in the region, CREATE has launched a talent database titled CO/CREATE that is a way to connect individuals who want to live and work in the area with employers who need their skills to grow their businesses, startups that are forming or expanding, or opportunities for talented folks to do their current job from the region.

It all adds up to a pretty robust mix of programs that are enabled by the visionary individuals who saw the opportunity to acquire a rundown mall and repurpose it in ways that served the future workforce needed in an ever-evolving business climate.

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