As biotech organization moves into new space, industry finds growing momentum
“We were so honored by how many people came to our ribbon-cutting,” South Dakota Biotech executive director Joni Ekstrum said.
“It feels like there’s a lot of momentum right now.”
We caught up with Ekstrum for a look at how the industry is gaining an even stronger presence in the state.
You recently held your summit and annual meeting. What were your key takeaways from that event?
First, the attendance. We had our largest number of registrations before the event and additional people who walked up and registered that day. We had extremely strong sponsor support. And because of all that support, we had top-notch speakers. We had speakers travel from North Carolina, Texas, St. Louis, Minnesota, and I think the topics really resonated. Areas like artificial intelligence and automation apply throughout all our industry sectors – health, bioproducts and agriculture – and our attendees loved learning about these emerging technologies. People are excited to be out again and meeting their peers and learning from them. There’s a lot of upward momentum here in South Dakota.
What are you noticing in terms of business activity?
One of the themes that’s been exciting to see is the growth of this industry in northeast South Dakota. Brookings has always been a center of research and ag-tech startups, and now we’re seeing that expand to Lake Preston, with Gevo’s sustainable aviation fuel facility, and Volga, where Canadian company CBS Bio Platforms has its new distribution facility. There are significant growth prospects with all these companies that we’re looking forward to supporting. And industrywide, statewide, I would also say there’s very strong interest in cybersecurity and how that can work with biotechnology, as well as a growing number of exciting ag-tech companies.
How is the industry supporting or helping incubate new startups?
One of the best examples is South Dakota FAST Launch, which is supported through grant funding. We recently received a $125,000 grant for the second of a three-year grant for the program. FAST’s objective is to strengthen the competitiveness of small businesses and startups across the country, particularly those from underserved communities to help them benefit from the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.
Starting in December, entrepreneurs can attend a virtual or in-person boot camp training program on starting and growing businesses as well as developing and commercializing innovations. Applications for funding consideration must meet one of the following requirements:
A tech-based, scalable company.
A company pursuing additional funding that enables the business to move forward, such as the Giant Vision Competition or capital investments.
Successful applications will indicate how they will use the funding to de-risk the business. Here’s more on upcoming sessions:
SD FAST Launch: Business Boot Camp
SD FAST Launch: Customer Discovery
SD FAST Launch: Write a Business Plan
You also continue to evolve how you communicate about and within the industry, including sponsoring a podcast. What can we expect from the new season there?
For us, it’s about offering unique content that serves a particular audience. Our “Inside Out Quality” podcast has a growing number of listeners and serves a niche market.
We found there is a need for a community in the quality and compliance sector, and this is an opportunity for them to listen and learn, but also for those outside the industry, there’s the chance to hear a lot of interesting stories. The podcast does a great job of explaining why we have regulations and what can happen when they aren’t followed.
Click here to listen in.
Where do we go from here in terms of continuing to grow the industry, and what public-private support will it take to get there?
There are many opportunities for us to capture, so we’re being strategic in how we frame those goals and subsequently build public-private partnerships to accomplish them.
We’ll likely have more to discuss soon, but broadly I think there’s an opportunity to hone our niche in industry-related manufacturing, whether that’s contract manufacturing for small biopharma companies or software-defined biomanufacturing. We also increasingly are focused on bioinformatics and our state’s need to enhance our capability and capacity in this area. And finally, we see some unique opportunities to support food-related entrepreneurship while serving area communities. There’s a lot to look forward to in 2023.
And, finally, the office. How is the new space supporting your broader goals?
It’s like a dream come true. The energy downtown is unmatched. This feels like where South Dakota Biotech should be — in the heart of the city where activity is happening and alongside other businesses that are growing and flourishing.
We’re up to about 60 members, and in our 15th year, this organization has continued to grow thanks to a lot of hard work and leadership from those who have been involved at every stage. When you look at our board representation, currently and historically, that’s what has formed us. They’ve made decisions and influenced policy that helped South Dakota Biotech grow.