John Sternick pulls out a thin, plastic rod about the length of a straw from his bag and begins explaining what sets it apart.
“It’s what I call low-tech,” he says. “But it’s an improved design.”
He calls the product a hook and loop. It’s a common tool in laboratories, but “people tend to make these as cheap as possible,” Sternick adds. He pulls out a competing product and points out how the design makes it awkward to transfer samples in a petri dish. Use one end and you end up contaminating the other end, he explains. Both ends are needed for the competing tool to work.
Sternick’s hook and loop, which combines both needed functions at one end of the tool, is the first product he designed and had manufactured for his business, South Dakota Biosystems. He ordered 1 million of them and is now sending samples to labs across the country.
“I tend to look at the user, and I want the user to be satisfied with the product,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about this a long time.”
Sternick is originally from South Dakota. He went to college in Huron and then South Dakota State before receiving his PhD at Marquette University and completing postdoctoral work at Sloan Kettering. He stayed in the New York and New Jersey areas for several years, working as a scientist at multiple startup companies. He then taught 19 years at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, becoming chair of the biology department.
“And then I came back to South Dakota,” he says. “I never liked the concrete city. I like the open space, hunting, and fishing, and you can’t do that in New York City.”
All those years in laboratories got him thinking about how to better design the tools needed for research or clinical work. The hook and loop are one of 20 products in various stages of development for South Dakota Biosystems. The second, a circle spreader with a rotating head that makes it easier to coat petri dishes, also has been produced. “These products will be used in the medical and biological fields and are mostly for clinical labs but also can be for research and academic teaching labs,” Sternick said. “The whole idea is to facilitate the use of whatever the researcher is doing and make it cheap enough so they don’t have to spend a fortune to improve their productivity. All these are low-end and disposable. We have others coming that are intermediate and others that are high-end and going through the patent process.”
To accommodate storage and distribution, Sternick is building a 24,000-square-foot building in the Brandon-Corson Industrial Park. Initially, he will use part of it to store products for South Dakota Biosystems, lease the rest and expand into it as growth dictates. The plan is to move in this fall. “For now it will be more warehouse storage and production than a lab,” he said. “The lab will have to expand in a different way.”
Sternick also continues his scientific research. He formed the nonprofit Cellular Molecular Institute three years ago as a way to “take ideas I had a long time ago and start developing those ideas into something more concrete,” he said. His research centers around creating artificial cells, tissue and ultimately organs.
“We’ve been fairly successful. It takes a lot of trial and error,” he said. “But we have managed to get somewhere with it. I expect within the next year or year and a half we’ll succeed with the first artificial cell and artificial tissue. We engineer it so it will not be susceptible to outside infection or rejection.”
Sternick’s range of biotech endeavors is exciting for South Dakota’s scientific community, said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.
“South Dakota Biosystems is offering truly innovative products that could improve the way people work in laboratories,” she said. “And the research John is pioneering through Cellular Molecular Institute holds vast possibilities. We are fortunate John came home to do this important work, and we’re glad to support him in it.”