Biotech leader: ‘2018 was among our biggest years ever’

When the bioscience industry looks back at 2018, it easily could represent a turning point for South Dakota.

As executive director of South Dakota Biotech, Joni Johnson sits at the center of an industry that she says is entering its next stage of growth.

We sat down with her to learn her outlook for 2019 and beyond.

What kind of year was 2018 for the bioscience industry in South Dakota? What do you think were some of the key developments?

It was a big year. As far as major developments in biosciences, it was among our biggest years ever. But there’s also been a shift. We now have an equity fund in the state, thanks to South Dakota Equity Partners. We have passed biosimilar legislation. We’re seeing significant investment in SAB Biotherapeutics, including from Denny Sanford. You look at the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award, and that brought relationships with leading biomedical researchers worldwide. So we’re entering a new stage as a bioscience state. We’re building infrastructure around our existing and emerging companies so they can be successful.

As you travel throughout the nation and connect with other bioscience leaders, are you finding greater awareness about South Dakota, or what are people saying?

Yes. I travel and talk about us, but when I get a chance to bring people here, we always take the opp. They are blown away by what they see. They can’t believe the community of Sioux Falls and how progressive it is. They’re surprised when you take them into the businesses and they see what’s going on and who we’re partnering with nationwide and internationally. They leave, and then they tell other people if they’re in South Dakota to stop and talk to us. So we’re starting to get referrals from people in other states who have seen what’s happening here. That’s really exciting that we’re building those relationships.

The USD Discovery District is a key development for the industry statewide. What’s your sense of the interest from biotech companies in this opportunity?

I think they see it as an opportunity for growth and something we didn’t have before. They can look at starting a business and getting it going here where maybe they couldn’t before. And it gives us an opportunity as we’re talking to companies in other states to communicate that we have this. You can be in at the ground level and be a flagship company in a growing and progressive area. Having the investment side step up has helped with those conversations. We can put substance behind our words now.

Are there some things you think we could be doing as a state to become even more attractive to bioscience companies?

More investment opportunities never hurt. We’re behind in providing specific incentives to the life science industry and learning what they need. It’s different from any other industry. It’s a tough industry. So we have to continue to listen to them. We have a great business climate and an easy regulatory path, but there are more programs we can offer. We want to make sure we incent them as much as we can because sometimes the fine print is not favorable to this industry.

What are you most looking forward to about 2019 in bioscience? What will you be watching?

There’s a lot that I’m excited about, from the activity at the Discovery District to the innovation occurring in our health systems, to the GEAR Center and USD’s new biomedical engineering program, to what’s going to happen with the South Dakota Equity Partners fund and other angel investments. As an organization, we’re excited to offer some enhanced strategic partnerships, working with businesses and professional partners who support the life science industry. And we’re looking forward to helping bioscience companies really understand what it takes to launch a business and be successful.

For those who don’t know much about South Dakota Biotech, can you share a little about your organization and your plans for this year?

I think it’s good to know we’re a trade association, a state affiliate along with 47 other states of BIO, the industry’s largest global trade organization. We work really closely with other states, especially in the Midwest, to find collaborations and make connections, so if we don’t have it here, we usually know someone who has whatever our members need. We’re always connecting with additional businesses growing in this industry or interested in connecting to others in this industry, and we only see that accelerating.