Kentucky’s aviation and aerospace growth is out of this world


FRANKFORT–Engineers watched a few weeks ago from a control room inside an old building on Short Street in Lexington as a small box was pushed into place aboard the International Space Station.

Designed and built in Kentucky under the direction of Kentucky-based Space Tango, the box is a laboratory called TangoLab 1 filled with 21 cubes capable of running different bioengineering experiments simultaneously. As a screen on the front of the laboratory lit up after installation, Space Tango founder Kris Kimel breathed a sigh of relief.

“See the lights come on?” he told members of the Interim Joint Committee on Labor and Industry today as they watched a short video recording of the event. “It would have been really bad if they didn’t come on. So we were quite pleased with that.”

The laboratory is part of the growing field of Exomedicine, which Kimel said is positioned to make breakthroughs in regenerative medicine, oncology and other medical fields using microgravity as a tool. And Kentucky, he explained, is at the center of it all.

“We are now doing some very, very exciting work that is now emanating out of Kentucky on this brand new area of medicine. And I’m happy to say we’ve got mission in the pipeline now in cystic fibrosis, cancer… really interesting neurobiology work and also in drug design,” said Kimel.

The presentation by Kimel and other testimony by Peter Lengyel, the president and CEO of Safran USA—an aviation, defense and security company with approximately 300 workers in Kentucky—both illustrated the strength of aviation and aerospace in Kentucky where Cabinet for Economic Development General Counsel Caroline Boeh Baesler said Kentucky exports have edged out California’s aviation and aerospace industry so far this year.

Boeh Baesler said Kentucky’s aviation and aerospace exports topped $8.7 billion last year and have reached $5.2 billion through June of this year.

“We’re already up 19 percent this year and we’ve surpassed California to be number two (in exports behind Washington State). So we have a good trend going on right now,” she said, adding most of Kentucky’s exports are going to the UK, France and Brazil with growing demand in China.

Committee Co-Chair Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, complimented her fellow lawmakers for their support of 2015 House Joint Resolution 100, legislation sponsored by House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, that honors the state’s aviation and aerospace industry and requires a study of the industry’s overall economic impact.

“To me it’s the most exciting thing going on Kentucky—this industry and everything you all are creating and doing,” said Kerr.

Growth in exports by the industry was highlighted by Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, who said he read that Kentucky’s aerospace exports are now double its automotive industry exports. Boeh Baesler said that is true when motor vehicle and motor vehicle parts are included in the automotive export mix.

“For 2015, if you look at just motor vehicles it was about $3.8 billion but if you also look at motor vehicle parts and other supplies, it creeps it up closer to $5 billion. But you’re right–it exceeds even motor vehicle manufacturing by quite a bit,” she said.

Then Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, asked the presenters what their industry needs from the Kentucky General Assembly to continue to grow within the state, Kimel said education. He later asked lawmakers to encourage more local private investment. Technology-driven companies find it hard to raise local capital and must often rely on investors from Silicon Valley or the West Coast, he said.

“Historically this has not been the kind of thing that Kentuckians have invested in. We understand that,” said Kimel. “It’s not about the legislature appropriating money—it’s really helping us educate and demonstrating that the state… supports these kinds of efforts.”

Boeh Baesler said capital investment have recently been aided by Kentucky’s Angel Investment Tax Credit, a program she said gives a “very generous tax credit” to those who invest in Kentucky startup companies. Additionally she said Kentucky has an Angel Investment Network in place to match up investors with ventures that interest them.

For the company’s part, Lengyel said companies themselves have an obligation to do their homework and ensure they are making the right investment.

“We know what our needs are going to be so there’s an obligation on our part to look through the economic development folks, to partner directly with the local community colleges to make sure that our manpower needs are (met),” Lengyel.

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