August 31, 2010

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Entrepreneur Cary Briggs and his business partner Scott Templeton had some great ideas using interactive glass, but they could only go so far because of the financial constraints and debt pitfalls of starting a company in today’s economy.

But Briggs wasn’t deterred. He visited with faculty and staff at the University of Kentucky’s Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability (RCARS) and started a chain of events that could have benefits beyond his own company, Envelop Media.

“Several months ago I sat down with David (Ditsch, RCARS director), and we talked about expanding what we’re doing at RCARS to help create jobs by helping entrepreneurs reduce a lot of the upfront risk that goes along with starting a business,” said Bobby Ammerman, extension specialist at RCARS for the UK Department of Forestry. “Then Cary Briggs showed up with ideas for incorporating some interesting technology in a product idea, but needed a way to hide  some of the electronic components of his design, and he felt wood would be a good way to do that. The lights sort of came on in our heads, and we thought, ‘yes, we can help him do this.’”

Briggs, who followed family roots to call Eastern Kentucky home, wanted help building a prototype to house his invention he calls a clarifier. It’s basically an interactive glass box with far-reaching potential in museums, funeral homes, churches and other places. Currently, Briggs is testing the technology in a funeral home in Pennsylvania. There, family and friends can interact with the display case that houses mementos, a slideshow or video and other items related to the deceased. Visitors may add their own memories via a keyboard; leave their email address so they get memorial updates and even instantly donate to the family’s chosen charities.

“We came to UK because we have a techie product, but we wanted it to have some warmth. And with wood as part of the display case, we got that,” Briggs said. “We had limited resources and really wanted to put our money into the technology and selling our product. UK really came through, and they took over building the prototype, and that allowed us to invest our limited resources in making the product marketable.”

Briggs said he and Templeton had some interest from a funeral industry representative in England. He told Briggs his ideas and then asked Briggs to build a prototype in four weeks. Briggs said the folks at RCARS, especially Doran Howard in the Wood Utilization Center, easily finished the product, and the funeral industry representative was impressed enough to become Brigg’s first official client.

With the technology and display case ideas in place, it was time to take the project to a new level.

“We knew there needed to be a second step; what happens when he sells the product and he needs someone to build it?” Ammerman said. “We thought it would be neat if we could find a Kentucky entrepreneur trying to start their own business and brought them into the mix. We knew we could train them at the wood center and allow them to build the first few items here. It would be a lot less risk for them, too.”

Ammerman and Ditsch identified John Marcum of Somerset, who’d taken some wood industry classes and workshops at the center. They also found out Marcum had recently been laid off from a wood industry job he’d held for many years. Marcum was trying to start his own wood industry business, but didn’t have the resources to get it up and running.

“I think this is so exciting and interesting, and I believe it will turn into a good opportunity to build a business,” Marcum said. “The support and help I’ve had at the wood center will shelter me from the risk and start-up costs and just make it easier to get loans from outside lenders later, because I’ll have an established business with an established product and established demand.”

Marcum said so many people are overburdened with business debt, they aren’t able to sustain the human resources that could make their business competitive. His end goal is to not only create a job for himself, but to create jobs for other Kentuckians as well.

Ditsch said RCARS points Eastern Kentucky in the direction of using the natural resources of the region in a sustainable way to create sustainable jobs. “We’ve put together resources and people with expertise in wood and technology and the result is a unique product that uses all that in one package,” he said. “We want to extend this model to other things we do at RCARS including horticulture, food and nutrition.”

Ditsch said they hope to find other folks in the region with unique interests and abilities and mentor them using all the resources of the center and the UK College of Agriculture such as business management, economics and marketing.

With 70 to 80 percent of the region’s land covered in trees, Ammerman said using those resources in a sustainable way will help everyone in the chain from the landowner, the wood industry professionals and entrepreneurs to the end users.

Ditsch said he likes the direction the clarifier project is moving the center.

“We’ve started with a vision of how we can use the center, the staff and faculty to help people in this region,” he continued. “Hopefully our next step will be obvious to us. This project is cutting edge for us, and we think it will have a tremendous impact. We can get someone set up in a business and draw attention to the resources of this region and then add value to those resources. It will make people want to come back and buy products made in Eastern Kentucky.”

Examples of RCARS collaborative work with Envelop Media and John Marcum will be on display at the Mountain Ag Field Day scheduled for Oct. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information on the field day is available online at http://www2.ca.uky.edu/rcars/.