When it comes to American innovation, don’t sell the heartland, or Kentucky, short.
We hear it over and over: Innovation in America is limited to the technology rich West Coast or the financial prowess on the East Coast. That is a remarkably myopic viewpoint and one that sells the heartland of America — and Kentucky — far too short.
As an entrepreneur from Kentucky, again and again in meetings with technology experts in Silicon Valley, or with bankers in New York, I am met with surprise or even disbelief at the revolutionary innovation happening in the waste and recycling space through a company with roots right here in Lexington — Rubicon. Now is the time to underscore everything that is wrong with that thesis. And I am betting on it, literally. It is why Rubicon, the company I co-founded and now lead as CEO, is opening a new global headquarters office in Lexington. It will be the beachhead going forward for our software and technology initiatives to help transform the waste and recycling industry across the globe.
As someone who has built a billion-dollar company in Kentucky out of trash—literally—let me tell you there is no shortage of innovation in the heartland, only a shortage of imagination everywhere else. America’s long history of innovation includes, not excludes, the heartland. The Wright Brothers ushered in the age of aviation from the back of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Ransom Olds and Henry Ford reimagined manufacturing and fathered the American automobile industry in Detroit, Michigan. George Washington Carver revolutionized agriculture in Alabama.
Yet for too long the educational, financial, and practical support of entrepreneurs has been concentrated in the country’s largest metropolitan areas. These, typically, are the coastal cities, and this practice results in a self-perpetuating and increasingly narrow cycle of investment that disenfranchises the majority of the country.
In order for America to continue to build on its legacy of innovation and leadership, we must support entrepreneurs everywhere, especially in our heartland.
Kentucky in particular is poised to take on the 21st-century challenge of reimagining industrial sectors with free market ideals and technology. Manufacturing is strong in Kentucky, representing over a fifth of the state’s overall gross domestic product (GDP), and its position in the center of the nation has made it a perfect place for hubs of logistics companies like UPS and Amazon. We are also the home to world class educational institutions, like the University of Kentucky in Lexington, which has invested billions of dollars in scholarships and outreach to support the next generation of Kentucky leaders.
At Rubicon, we proudly chose to expand our presence in our home state of Kentucky with brand new office space in the center of downtown Lexington. Given the state’s geographically central location, and that Kentucky is Rubicon’s birthplace, Lexington was the most natural choice for us. In addition, this move is a signal to our customers, our partners, and our employees that we are committed to supporting economic growth of communities everywhere, not only by what we do as a company, but by where we choose to operate. World-changing ideas can come from anywhere, and fostering innovation is the central tradition of American business.
One example of American innovation has been our race to explore space. In the 20th century, the space program was dominated by the government, because no other source of capital can match the nearly limitless funds available to the United States government. Today, in the 21st century, the free market has stepped in to carry the flag beyond the moon, potentially to Mars, and toward other economic uses of space. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are picking up where NASA left off to solve pressing problems in space, with American innovation and entrepreneurial drive.
While public investment is both critical to economic expansion and required if we are going to confront economic disparity, government should be an enabler and supporter of private business growth and its goal should be to let entrepreneurs do what they do best: Identify persistent problems, understand the opportunities for innovation, and bring cutting-edge solutions to market to address them. Just as with the development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, the government should direct capital towards opening doors, and then get out of the way for businesses to develop working solutions.
The American free market is the greatest driver of innovation in the history of the world. There is no reason why our tradition of leadership cannot continue – and expand – in the 21st century.
Emerging from the public health and financial ravages of a global pandemic presents a good opportunity to reinvigorate ourselves with the spirit of entrepreneurship and American innovation at all levels. In expanding our Kentucky presence with our global headquarters in Lexington, we are committed to lead on that front room both a business and philanthropic presence. I trust we will not be alone.
Nate Morris is the founder and CEO of Lexington-based Rubicon and the chairman of the Concordia Lexington Summit planned for November in an effort to create partnerships that address drivers of division and improve economic empowerment for all. This article originally appeared on the Lexington Herald Leader's website on June 10, 2021.