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The Rural & Independent Innovators Conference was developed to cultivate innovators and innovation; bring new products, technologies and services to market; and support economic development in rural communities. (Photo by Ben Rumbaugh.)

Innovation is in the lifeblood and DNA of Kansans, Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland told attendees of the Rural & Independent Innovators Conference in Dodge City, Kansas. The U.S. Small Business Administration, Kansas Small Business Development Center, Seward County Community College, Kansas Department of Commerce, Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation and other groups sponsored the RIIC event, held Nov. 12 and 13, at Boot Hill Casino and Resort Conference Center. 

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Pointing to innovators like Olive Ann Beech, Clyde Cessna, Walter Chrysler and Clyde Tombaugh, Toland said, “These are people that came out of small-town Kansas who had ideas, and they had that grit and that drive and that vision to make their ideas become real.”

Through the RIIC program, the KSBDC aims to “cultivate innovators and entrepreneurs in rural areas of Kansas and to assist independent innovators and businesses anywhere in the state who lack the support of a developed research program.” The event in Dodge City was the first RIIC in southwest Kansas. Conferences were held earlier this year in Manhattan, Pittsburg and Hays. 

Developing ideas

Bill Carey, science advisor for the Kansas SBDC Technology Innovation Center, led a panel at the Dodge City RIIC that focused on developing innovative ideas and evaluating whether to pursue them. Panelists included Molly Kocialski, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; Jeff Tucker, Kansas State University Technology Development Institute; Earl Roemer, Nu Life Market; Jim Correll, FabLab ICC; and Hayes Kelman, Boot Hill Distillery.

Roemer is founder and president of Nu Life Market in Scott City, Kansas, which produces, mills and processes sorghum grain to offer gluten-free and GMO-free foods and beverages to consumers. “We mill millions of pounds of flour we sell to every major food company here in the U.S. and export to seven countries,” he said.

“What’s going to shape innovation and creativity and what’s going to be the next product?” Roemer asked. “You know, our company is a little more advanced, and I have this fantastic team of influencers around me. So, when you talk about gut instinct it’s about data, but it’s also about having a team surrounding you that’s very, very innovative. An example is we have a world-renowned plant geneticist on staff. She has 66 patents,” he said. 

Roemer said Nu Life Market’s communication with customers is also important to his company’s innovation. Nu Life Market speaks directly with the heads of research and development for all the major food companies in the United States about short-term and long-term product development strategies, and Roemer said this enables them to “build the characteristics of a new product back into the attributes that our raw ingredients contain.” 

Other panelists emphasized successful innovators do their homework; manage risk well; launch a product or service to see if there is a viable market for it instead of tinkering for years to make it perfect; and learn from failure.

Kocialski, the director of the Rocky Mountain Regional USPTO, covered the basics of intellectual property, patents, trade secrets and trademarks. She shared how innovators can navigate statutory hurdles by using the resources available at USPTO offices around the country.

Other RIIC sessions focused on funding sources and advisory teams, technology grants, government contracting and exporting basics. Panels on raising venture capital, product development and prototyping, and marketing and sales featured advice from state and local innovators, financial experts and resource providers.

Innovating in education

College presidents Ken Trzaska, Seward County Community College; Harold Nolte, Dodge City Community College; and Ryan Ruda, Garden City Community College, discussed innovation in southwest Kansas community colleges and how they are moving the workforce forward. Joann Knight, director of the Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation, moderated the education panel.

Collaborating with the community to meet local workforce needs is an important focus for all three schools.

“I think in education it’s all about relevance and relationships. I think in order to be innovative, in order to really take a look at how it is that we can advance programs and advance organizations, it really does come down to relationships and relevance,” Ruda said.

He shared an example of a partnership GCCC has developed with local school districts to meet the local demand for a construction trades educational program. The school also has a partnership with John Deere to place students in the school’s two-year trade program. John Deere covers the cost of tuition and tools, and the students can move directly into a job with the company after completing the program.

Nolte said DCCC recently announced a similar agreement for a diesel technology program with Daimler Trucks North America.

Trzaska said, “In my opinion, innovation and entrepreneurship are driven through the lens of values—how you act on them, how you live them, how you believe them, and how you ultimately do that in the context of serving your students from a community college perspective.” 

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Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland shared plans for the Kansas Framework for Growth at the Rural & Independent Innovators Conference in Dodge City, Kansas, in November. (Journal photo by Shauna Rumbaugh.)

Growing the economy

Toland highlighted plans for the Department of Commerce’s Kansas Framework for Growth, which will be rolled out in three phases. He noted that the last time the state had a comprehensive, strategic blueprint for growing the economy was 1986, when the Redwood-Krider report was published. 

Gov. Laura Kelly and Toland believe that quality of life is essential to economic development. “It’s not just about those incentives. It’s not just about infrastructure. It’s not just about workforce. It’s about whether the community has the right feel, whether it’s got a vibe that supports innovators or is closed off to innovation, whether it’s got the parks and schools and trails and all of those things that make community be the place a family wants to choose,” he said. 

Toland wants the framework strategy to be driven by innovators, “This should be driven by businesses across our state.” 

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or srumbaugh@hpj.com.

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