As the name suggests, Innovation Alley is more than just a narrow passageway between two streets.
The block-long alley between Russell and Washington in Covington was officially rechristened a few years ago by Covington City Hall and, with its official government blessing and support from some mainstream businesses, was designed to serve as the connecting center of an entrepreneurship district that takes in a full city block and beyond.
The “alley” and its surrounding district are home to some of Northern Kentucky’s better-known startup stories.
Among them are Gravity Diagnostics, the medical testing firm that is currently processing thousands of Covid-19 tests each day, which is headquartered at Sixth and Russell. Bexion Pharmaceuticals, which is developing and testing a drug for brain cancer, does its groundbreaking work there. Grainwell Market, a family-owned creator of home décor products, is there.
For inspiration, Mother of God Catholic church, and its awe-inspiring Italian Renaissance Revival architecture, is across the street, and Braxton Brewing Co., where a menu of creative craft beers is on tap, is a short walk away.
READ MORE: Innovation Alley to connect startup orgs in downtown Covington
Some have even likened the Alley to the humble beginnings of Microsoft, started by two childhood friends named Bill Gates and Paul Allen, or of Apple, which sprang from the garage of Steve Jobs’ parents.
“Why not an alley in the heart of Northern Kentucky's largest city as the next hub of innovation and entrepreneurship?" says Covington Economic Development Director Tom West.
“Innovation Alley itself is just a block long, but the intellectual work and collaboration that's happening within and around that block has impact far beyond its geographic location,” West says.
It's a home to a critical mass of entrepreneurship activity that is about to grow some more.
Northern Kentucky University is planning to create NKY-HUB, a one-stop, shared services, entrepreneurship nerve center of sorts that will be housed in the district. The NKU Foundation recently assumed the sublease of 112 Pike St., where NKY-HUB will be located. The goal is to help drive economic growth in Northern Kentucky by helping entrepreneurs access data, talent, and funding.
The city of Covington says at least 26 partners have signed on with NKU to help NKY-HUB become a connector for entrepreneurs, private-business leaders, investors, educational programs, non-profits, government agencies, and economic development organizations.
The Pike Street address was once the home of UpTech, the seed accelerator program started in 2012 that is now on hiatus.
NKU plans to go public with more details about the Hub in the coming weeks. Covington City Manager David Johnston says he’s looking forward to what the University’s addition will bring to the district.
"NKU is brimming with expertise and ideas,” he says. “We have long desired to tap into that resource.”
There are other developments along Innovation Alley.
Emersion Design, the Cincinnati-based architecture and planning firm, has studied the space and made recommendations to improve its looks and how it works with the surrounding built environment.
Among the recommendations are adding public art and creative lighting, creating outdoor gathering and collaboration spaces, improving some of the infrastructure, including the brick pavers, and adding wayfinding helps and other signage.
A parking lot next to Innovation Alley has hosted parties and events over the years, prompting the Emersion Design report to say it’s "important for the new alley improvements to allow for these grassroots, pop-up activities to continue and thrive. This alley should become a 'place' and a 'path.'”
One discussion point is figuring out how to more visually connect the historic Mother of God Church on the alley's north side with the enterprises on the south side, perhaps doing so with art.
"You have one of the oldest institutions on earth in the Roman Catholic Church, and some of the newest companies on earth with these entrepreneurs,” West says. “They can co-exist to each's benefit."
Covington leaders are seeking arts and infrastructure grants to implement Emersion’s recommendations, which are estimated to cost $200,000.
A coach to help small businesses survive the pandemic economy has moved in to 114 Pike Street, which is also the home of Aviatra Accelerators, the nonprofit that works with women-owned startups.
Lisa Brann was hired by the Kentucky Small Business Development Center
to work with small businesses facing staffing challenges, losses of customers and revenue, reduced hours of operation, and supply chain disruptions from the impact and spread of the Covid-19 disease.
Brann is a certified public accountant, a 1994 graduate of NKU, and a lifelong Northern Kentucky resident.
"Right now, business coaches are helping business owners of all sizes overcome Covid-19 operating hurdles,” says Ross Patten, chair of the Kentucky SBDC Advisory Board and Covington’s economic development project manager. “But they are just as important in good economic times to help owners discover new market opportunities and unlock resources," Patten says.
Unlocking resources is what Aviatra Accelerators is all about, and the Innovation Alley/Pike Street-located group is hoping to start a second round, or cohort, of its Women of Color program this fall.
The first round, which took place January through mid-March, attracted 16 participants. The timing of a second will depend on the loosening of Covid-19 social-distancing restrictions.
Aviatra was started in 2010 as Bad Girl Ventures Inc. and since then, it says, it has granted more than $1 million in low-interest loans to women-owned businesses, which have received more than $10 million in follow-on funding.
President and CEO Nancy Aichholz says she is looking forward to the expanded innovation district.
"We have long awaited a more vibrant innovation scene on our ever-evolving street in Covington," she says.
Innovation Alley is continuing to evolve, and as it does, so will Northern Kentucky’s environment for entrepreneurship.