Innovation

A $2.75M US grant plants a tech seed in eastern Kentucky

A federal grant is making it possible for eastern Kentuckians to begin training for coding jobs. Here's how it happened, and why it matters to Kentucky.

ekcep-teky-funding-01.png
Image: Interapt

Today, at the Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Paintsville, KY, 50 eastern Kentuckians will begin training for jobs in tech. And thanks to a $2.75M federal grant, those enrolled in the training will be paid for their work, serve as interns, and will be eligible for a full-time job at Interapt, one of Kentucky's hottest tech companies.

The 33-week coding academy, TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY), which is run by Interapt, will teach students to build and support mobile applications running on iOS and Android devices. Interapt, a Louisville-based startup, develops mobile apps and wearable solutions for connected devices—and has a need for skilled programmers.

The goal of the grant, which comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration, is to help revitalize a region that has been hit hard by the downturn in the coal industry.

Ankur Gopal, the CEO of Interapt, told TechRepublic that this program could have a big impact in an area where there are talented people who want to work—and just need a little help learning the right skills for the job.

Starting a startup in Kentucky

Born and raised in the small town of Owensboro, Kentucky, Gopal said that "like most Kentuckians, I believed that success meant getting out of Kentucky." So he did just that—venturing to Washington, DC, California, Chicago, and other places. When he returned to Kentucky, he expected to just stay six months before moving to Silicon Valley, but he ended up sticking around.

Gopal knew he couldn't run Interapt without help. And thanks to local support, he able to find a lot of work—in the healthcare system, in broadcast and media. Yet when it came to hiring, he still faced difficulty recruiting talent to Kentucky. Gopal said he probably conducted hundreds of interviews or phone calls trying to recruit someone to move to Kentucky that didn't result in a hire.

So he decided to search locally.

"We basically said, 'If we could just have really good people who automatically love being in Kentucky, that's a bonus,' Gopal said. They talked to some local representatives, were recognized by the ARC, and got the grant. "It has to do with the local corporate community believing in us," he said. "It has to do with the local government agencies, and politicians believing it, too and universities and training, and so on."

Interapt has their first employees in eastern Kentucky, running the program, but plans to open an office there once the program is fully ramped up.

A focus on training

Universities don't always teach the skills a startup needs, said Gopal. That means that many startups need other ways to find talent. "We believe that we can teach someone to work for us," said Gopal.

SEE: "Silicon Prairie," America's new entrepreneurial frontier (CBS News)

It wouldn't have been possible several years ago, he said, simply from a connectivity standpoint. "But now a lot of stars are aligning," said Gopal. "We know that every company could become a technology company. We know that there is a lack of workforce to deal with this all over the country...You can either compete for the scarce resources or you can find a new way to get those resources. We've chosen to find a new way."

Interapt, he said, is going to use the grant money to hire top-notch training. "We're going to be able to invest really strong resources into getting these people skilled," said Gopal. "We are also paying people from day one so they get a livable wage to learn."

"They don't have the foundational skill set," Gopal said. "We'll take it a step further by not only teaching the foundations, but teaching how to manage complex code with a senior development team, which is what our engineers are going to be doing as well."

The program will give each student a MacBook, training, and assistants to help along the way. "We are pretty positive and optimistic that this is going to be a game changer," said Gopal. "The entire world is going to watch and see if we can do this."

Who are the students?

The Kentuckians joining the program have some training, but they wouldn't get hired at a tech company today, Gopal said. Interapt initially looked at 17-29 year-olds as well as displaced workers. "We said, 'let's focus on these two areas so we could immediately make some impact,'" Gopal said.

"We had Eagle Scouts. We had people that had taken a couple years of computer science at a four-year institution, but had to go home to take care of a family member. We've had people who have moved back to eastern Kentucky because their spouse is from there and they've been looking for meaningful work," Gopal said. "They've been working from home for companies like Coca-Cola or [Microsoft] Xbox. Here's a way for them to stay in their hometown and still work on cutting edge technology."

Gopal is continually impressed with the talent in eastern Kentucky. "We had a senior leader who used to work around the country training people for Wal-mart. We had an ex-Harvard student that was just working in eastern Kentucky trying to do something similar.

"It's amazing the types of people that you have there," said Gopal. "They have the intelligence. They have the work ethic to do it. They just need the opportunity."

It's amazing the types of people they have there. They have the intelligence. They have the work ethic to do it. They just need the opportunity. Ankur Gopal

But how do you create a tech ecosystem in eastern Kentucky, where jobs are scarce? It's a question Gopal takes seriously. "There are no jobs out there. There is no IBM. There is no El Toro. There is no Interapt out there, yet," he said. "What happens if we just pull the brightest people out of eastern Kentucky, skill them up, and move them out to Louisville? How does that help eastern Kentucky? We have brain drain, but in a different way," Gopal said.

SEE: Launching a startup: A primer for new entrepreneurs (Tech Pro Research)

He sees this as a problem that can be addressed by technology. " If some of my employees say, 'I want to move to Louisville,' that's okay," said Gopal. "And if some people say, 'I want to live in eastern Kentucky,' that's okay, too. We're going to work with both those people."

This gets at the heart of how Gopal sees this program as unique. "You can take a class. You can go to a school. You can learn some of the skills we're doing, but we are preparing you for the high tech job at Interapt as well as the ability to live where you want to if you're from eastern Kentucky," said Gopal.

"Our first spots, our first 50 people are tremendously talented with all sorts of backgrounds, with a lot of experience that we needed," he said. "We had guys who have been learning programming on YouTube. We had guys who had built the prototypes that they talked about in their interview," said Gopal.

"We know these people can handle the demands of work at Interapt," he said. "I think it's going to work."


Also see

About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox