Innovation KC

The Kansas City metro area bills itself—and is increasingly seen—as a cutting-edge, tech-friendly, entrepreneurial hub. Through foundations, research institutions and major business initiatives, Kansas City has turned its focus to innovation in many spheres. But what does innovation in Kansas City really look like? Who are the people identifying needs and problems and creating solutions that work? And what makes our region especially conducive—or challenging—to such efforts?

Innovation KC is a series of interviews that introduces you to Kansas City's innovators and how innovation works in the region. Conducted by KCUR's Brian Ellison, these conversations illuminate the thinking and work of corporate legends and startup hopefuls, nonprofit pioneers and visionary inventors. 
 

Krista Nelson
Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Health care providers who work with kids are natural innovators, says Krista Nelson, Children’s Mercy Hospital’s director of innovation development.

Nelson, an expert in innovation — not medicine, was hired by the hospital to run its new Center for Pediatric Innovation.

“In the children’s hospital or pediatric environment, we really deal with every size of child from a premature baby all the up to the captain of the football team at one of our big high schools,” says Nelson.

Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3

Over the last few years, the country’s tech giants — Google, Twitter and Facebook — have all been called out for their mostly white and mostly male staffs.

Diversity has become a top priority in Silicon Valley. 

Vewiser Dixon, an area entrepreneur, wants to help Kansas City avoid the image plaguing Silicon Valley — by building a tech space from the ground up, with diversity hardwired into its core.

Augie Grasis
Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Augie Grasis doesn’t shy away from the label “serial entrepreneur.”

“I guess it’s true from the standpoint that I’ve had a number of startups,” says Grasis, the founder of multiple technology companies in Kansas City. “It’s really what interests me the most and what turns me on the most about life and about commerce. It’s innovating and improving the way things are done.”

Grasis is best known for starting up Handmark, which made content apps for the Palm operating system before expanding to other platforms and being acquired by Sprint in 2013.

Shawnee Mission School District

Being in high-school can feel like a full-time job — eight hours a day in the classroom, plus schoolwork to do at home.

Throw in an after school job and a few extra curricular activities and you’ve got a very busy teen.

Kansas City-area high-schoolers Dawson Borcherding and Daniel Serres have taken that already busy schedule one step further.

Both started their own companies before they turned 17.

Young Leaf Landscaping

Callie England
Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Callie England felt sick all the time. She went to doctors. She got her blood tested. By the time she was 21, she had taken more than 3,000 prescription pills and was at her wit’s end.

And then she changed what she ate.

MINDDRIVE

 If you go to the 2016 Kansas City Auto Show at Bartle Hall, you may spot among the shiny new SUVs and tricked-out sports cars something more incongruous. It's squat and narrow, resembling a more advanced version of a Soapbox Derby car. 

Look again: that car was printed by a 3-D printer and designed by high school kids in Kansas City. 

Sam Green and Nick Ward-Bopp
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Drivers speeding by on 31st Street near Cherry in Midtown, Kansas City, probably rarely noticed the building — its windows boarded up like so many others. That is, until last week.

Behind those boards — and now, a gleaming new glass façade — Maker Village KC is taking shape. Co-owners and founders Sam Green and Nick Ward-Bopp are inside most nights and weekends demolishing, renovating and building. 

Liliana and Max Younger
Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

The basic technology of the crutch, Max and Liliana Younger knew, hadn’t changed since the Civil War.

But when Max’s father became a permanent crutch user after a partial leg amputation in 2008, the married couple — both industrial designers by training — committed themselves to rethinking an age-old technology.

“We knew it was something we needed to change,” Max says.

Bob Bennett

The job summary is a little daunting: Kansas City seeks a creative thinker to find innovative and smart solutions to the city’s complex problems. No big deal, right?

For Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s new Chief Innovation Officer, it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before. His 24-year tenure in the U.S. Army afforded him plenty of daunting tasks. While he served in Iraq under General  David Petraeus, he developed interagency strategies between the military and aid organizations — something that neither institution is prone to do.

Danny O'Neill
Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Danny O’Neill has come a long way from his basement—where he first began filling orders for freshly roasted coffee in the early 1990s.

“The walls were covered with corrugated tin, because I have this old house—built in 1920 or ’22, limestone foundation—so to pass agricultural regulations, everything had to be cleanable, washable,” O’Neill says.

Doug Danforth
Julie Denesha / / KCUR 89.3

Sometimes innovation is best left to the dogs. At least, that was the case for Doug Danforth.

Danforth had been CEO of Midland Loan Services, a subsidiary of PNC Bank in Overland Park. He was running the show. In 2009, the industry had seen better days, and he might have been ready to retire and spend a little more time with the family and with his dogs—Atticus, a yellow lab, and beagles Marley and Molly. Instead, those dogs were Danforth’s inspiration for a new product and company.

Maria Meyers
Julie Denesha / KCUR

Innovation, it is sometimes said, is finding a new way to solve a problem.

In 2003, would-be entrepreneurs in Kansas City had a problem, according to Maria Meyers. There were plenty of resources available to help with starting up a business—but nobody could find them. There was no central hub linking those resources together so that one could find idea incubators, funding sources, lending programs, patent attorneys, small business development centers in any sort of accessible and efficient way.

And so an innovation was born.

Julie Denesha / KCUR

Benny Lee grew up in Taiwan. His first visit to Kansas City was in 1975, one of many business trips he would make here on various ventures — from distributing ginsu knives to developing and selling handheld steamers. Lee eventually moved his family to Kansas City in 1995, when he became an investor in DuraComm, which makes power supply and lighting equipment. By 2008, he was the sole owner. 

Natasha Kirsch
Julie Denesha / / KCUR

Natasha Kirsch was volunteering at an alcoholic and addict recovery home when the idea—and a well-timed phone call — came to her.

Sitting in the business office, Kirsch said, it would not be unusual for eight to 10 women to be sitting on the couch outside, asking for help finding and getting a job. They needed the income and the stability — many had several kids and few resources.

But there was a problem: Most were high school dropouts with low reading levels, many had felonies on their records. What job skills could they market? And who would hire them? 

Mike Foster
Julie Denesha / / KCUR

Some innovators develop something completely new. Others take something that everyone thought was working fine and make it better.

Julie Denesha / KCUR

In 2009, Mary Kay O'Connor was preparing to restart her consulting business. Her specialty was collecting customers' stories to provide meaningful feedback to her clients. The Affordable Care Act was in the news, and she became interested in the data collected by the federal government — data that showed hospitals performing poorly but without much information on how they could improve.

She may not have been the typical startup entrepreneur – but an idea took hold.

Julie Denesha / KCUR

EyeVerify, a Kansas City company building a customer and investor base around the globe, was founded by Toby Rush, its CEO, who went looking for a new place to invest his time and resources in early 2011.

Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Like many entrepreneurs, Henry Bloch’s first business idea wasn’t the one that took off.

Henry and his brother, Richard Bloch, opened a small, bookkeeping office at Westport Road and Main Street in Kansas City. In 1955, they had decided to stop preparing tax returns, but an ad salesman for the Kansas City Star had a different idea.