Ohio University’s Innovation Center founded the LIGHTS Regional Innovation Network (LIGHTS) to catalyze the creation of companies creating high-wage jobs, and attract greater private investment in the coal-impacted regions of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The Appalachian Regional Commission funded the program in 2016 to provide direct entrepreneurial assistance to startups; assist communities in deploying their own makerspaces and business incubators; and convene, facilitate, and mentor regionally-led entrepreneurial ecosystems. By the end of the 3-year LIGHTS-funded activities, federal support enabled the creation of over 200 new businesses or product lines, 91 new jobs, the retention of over 1200 jobs, and over 38 million dollars in leveraged private investment.
In 2017, Buckeye Hills Regional Council, in collaboration with Ohio University, expanded LIGHTS with the support and funding of the Innovation Gateway Network of Appalachian Ohio (IGNAO) through the Appalachian Regional Commission. The program expanded the capacity of the network through the exploration and formation of two additional makerspaces in Nelsonville and Somerset Ohio and provided additional support for the city of Marietta to further expand upon the original makerspace plan. IGNAO-funded activities and support served over 6,000 individuals and helped improve over 1,600, enabling the creation of 21 new businesses, and 54 new jobs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored the DREAMCO+ initiative building upon LIGHTS network to further support the number and viability of small and emerging businesses with a product focus. Support and expanded capacity jumpstarted the IGNITE workshop series across the 26-county region, focusing on product-based businesses through one-on-one technical assistance, business planning, pitch preparation, skills training, and mentor matchmaking. Through sponsorship, over 30 jobs were created, 540 jobs were retained, and nearly 100 entrepreneurs were supported to progress in revenue-generating ventures.
In 2019 Shawnee State University expanded the program with the LIGHTS-INC (Inclusive) initiative, helping support post-recovery-to-employment opportunities through entrepreneurship and workforce services with partnerships among recovery service providers, entrepreneurial ecosystem leaders, and workforce professionals. Today, the LIGHTS hosts 10 Innovation Gateways delivering entrepreneurial and workforce development programs across 26 counties and 3 states.
With growing challenges facing the nation from the opioid epidemic and subsequent substance use disorder, the Appalachian Regional Commission created the INvestments Supporting Partnerships In Recovery Ecosystems program in 2020. Ohio University petitioned for the use of the LIGHTS network across the region to support individuals in recovery through skilling and support, leveraging local makerspaces, and building upon the relationships and engagements from LIGHTS-INC. In 2021 Ohio University’s Health Science and Professions and George Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service were awarded support. LIGHTS activities now support the Integrating Recovery Supports at Appalachian Innovation Gateways project, building upon traditional makerspace activities, providing skilling activities to individuals in recovery, and helping in the formation of South East Ohio Hope RCO, Athens (OH) County’s first recovery community organization.
Today, the LIGHTS Regional Innovation Network continues to support local educational, entrepreneurial, small business & venture development activities, providing pathways to educational activities, makerspace opportunities, business incubation support, and substance use disorder (SUD) recovery assistance. The network strives to create new opportunities for communities, and promote innovative ideas and actions across Appalachia.