As biotech leader marks decade, industry makes big plans for future

In that time, the industry’s growth has been impressive:
  • In 2012, there were 374 bioscience establishments in South Dakota.
  • By 2021, the most recent data available, that had grown to 718.
  • Ten years ago, about 5,100 South Dakotans were employed in the bioscience industry.
  • In 2021, the number had increased to 7,427 people.
Funding is another measure of growth. While it can vary from year to year, in 2012 South Dakota organizations were approved for $370,000 in phase one funding from the SBIR, or Small Business Innovation Research, program. In the most recent two years available, 2020 and 2021, SBIR phase one funding totaled more than $12.7 million.

And, finally, South Dakota saw 214 bioscience-related patents from 2018 to 2021 – a sign that innovation is alive and well, and positioning the state for growth.

“Bioscience is not like some industries in that it can be a slow, sometimes tedious growth curve,” Ekstrum said. “But looking back over time clearly shows the significant activity this sector has experienced in South Dakota, and we expect that to only ramp up with the strategic approaches we plan to roll out in the years ahead.”

We caught up with Ekstrum to look at the momentum the biotech industry is experiencing and to preview where the industry is heading.

First, congratulations on a decade of service! What has kept you energized and dedicated to the role?

First of all, it’s the industry itself. It’s incredibly interesting. The work being done by our member companies truly impacts lives and in many cases saves lives. I find that fascinating. I love the curiosity of researchers and the things they think about. Even if nothing ultimately materializes, what they look into and what they try and how they try to create innovations that make life better or the world safer is pretty powerful. I love to learn from people who are smarter than me and just see the world through their eyes. But I think what’s kept me in the role is the industry continues to grow in South Dakota, and that allows South Dakota Biotech to basically get creative with opportunities for our member companies.

As the industry expands and South Dakota becomes stronger and emerging and less of a startup, it allows us to talk with neighboring states or across the U.S. about how we might partner or collaborate. In the decade I’ve been leading South Dakota Biotech, the industry has been anything but stagnant or declining. It’s continually new and exciting, and things are happening.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the industry in the past 10 years?

First of all, the universities have stepped up their tech transfer activity. They have made a concerted effort to encourage faculty and graduate students to commercialize their technologies. One metric for us to see that companies are growing is through our partnership with Fisher Scientific, which offers meaningful savings to our members on research-related materials and equipment. We can see through this metric that our companies are continuing to grow. We can tell that our biotech companies are adding equipment and staff and services.

Of course, we need to remember that seeing results of this will take time. Many fail. It’s not an easy industry. And then, I think it’s also key to point out some individual successes in the last decade that represent what can happen for biotech startups based in South Dakota. In that time, we saw SAB Biotherapeutics go public and receive millions in funding to support its game-changing research and development. And we saw Nanopareil be acquired by Gamma Biosciences, a life sciences tools platform, which will continue to build on its transformative work.

What are some of the key ways that South Dakota Biotech has evolved as an organization in the past decade?

I think there’s definitely been an interest in businesses wanting to learn more about the biotech industry and how they can support it and connect with it, and with that we have a lot more businesses partnering with us to better connect to the industry. We have a broader team, including a new part-time team member and a number of independent-contractor relationships. As an organization, we have financial sustainability, we’ve increased our visibility and added events, plus support a podcast. Critically, we’re now invited to sit at the table for key discussions about how the state is focused on growing its economy in this sector. And we have a lot more partnerships, in state and regionally. We have continual conversations with our neighboring states. So we have a regional focus.

Looking back on 2022, what stood out about the year?

We have to start with Gevo, which is very exciting. Not only is it the state’s largest economic development project in history, but the sustainable aviation fuel that will be produced there is absolutely the sort of innovation that is right in line with our industry’s mission to feed, fuel and heal the world. The POET Bioproducts Institute at SDSU’s bioprocessing facility is another huge development that supports the growth of ag-related bioscience in our state. And on the workforce side, the influx of talent we’ve seen in the state is exciting.

As an organization, I’m energized by how we’re growing our board and the role they’re playing in helping shape the vision for growing South Dakota Biotech in the state and region. And, of course, 2022 marked the year we as an organization moved downtown, and we’re enjoying the new perspective and reach that gives us within the business community. We were honored that more than 100 people attended our ribbon-cutting and a record number attended our annual summit, which shows how much interest and support there is for this industry and our organization.

With the support of the board, you have big plans for South Dakota Biotech this year. What are some of your priorities?

We want to continue to build on our regional focus and approach. In 2021, we received a three-year SBA FAST grant totaling $375,000 to support tech-based startups by providing funding, training and mentorship to those accepted into the FAST Launch program. For us, economic development has to be growing the pipeline within our state. We can’t just be recruiting companies. It has to be both. We’re also excited to continue to see the Discovery District move ahead and look forward to the momentum we think that’s going to create in the industry.

Let’s try to predict the future a bit – and look out to the next 10 years. What would you like this industry to look like in the state by then?

I’d like to see a greater number of emerging biotech companies. Right now, we’re working on increasing the pipeline and supporting those companies that are in it, but we want to see them become successful and grow. Having a continual culture in our state of supporting research in the biotech industry is key, not just financially but with mentoring and whatever they need to become successful. We want a great thread of invention coming out of the universities and the health systems, and we’re creating an infrastructure that supports them. We do have a strong handful of emerging companies today, but we want to be fostering an environment that generates more. And it would be fun to see some startups received significant funding or become acquired or go public.

If a business or individual would like to become more connected to the bioscience industry, what would you suggest?

Attend our networking events. They’re free, they draw a good cross-section of people, and if you’re not familiar with the biotech industry, you’ll be able to meet with industry professionals and learn about what they’re doing. Come by the office anytime, or give me a call at 605-274-3714 or email
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