Biotech leaders recognized for industry contributions

The LIVE award recognizes leadership, innovation, vision and entrepreneurship of individuals or organizations contributing to South Dakota Biotech and furthering bioscience to heal, fuel and feed the world.

This year’s LIVE Award recipient, South Dakota Innovation Partners, was selected for its visionary leadership in starting companies in South Dakota that are dedicated to the commercialization of biotech research from our university system.

With founding support from Fishback Financial Corp. chairman Van Fishback, the 10,000-square-foot wet lab facility Brookings BioSpace helped advance the work of SDSU faculty entrepreneurs before the university’s research park was conceptualized. Fishback then was part of a group of leaders who recruited Mark Luecke back to his home state to form South Dakota Innovation Partners.

Luecke then wrote a business plan that included securing $6 million in early-stage investor commitments. With this initial funding, the accomplishments of South Dakota Innovation Partners were impressive:
  • 2,000-plus invention disclosure forms reviewed.
  • 100-plus patent applications filed.
  • 20-plus license agreements executed.
  • 10 startup companies formed.
  • 25-plus grant proposals submitted per year.
  • Multiple entrepreneurial development programs started.

“South Dakota Innovation Partners has achieved a 500-times return on a state grant that they received to get started, they have helped secure over $250 million of investment capital for their projects, they have helped create over 200 new jobs, and they have helped create over $100 million in annual recurring value for the region,” said Joni Ekstrum, executive director of South Dakota Biotech. “This organization epitomizes the qualities of the LIVE Award.”

The South Dakota Biotech Distinguished Collaborator Award was established to recognize those advancing biotechnology by building effective, collaborative relationships with academia, government and industry, and contributing to the biotechnology sector in South Dakota.

This year’s Distinguished Collaborator is Katherine Cota, director of economic development at Dakota State University.

Cota has more than 20 years of experience launching entrepreneurial centers at the University of Northern Iowa and California State University. She was instrumental in the success of the FAST Launch Program by holding training sessions and workshops for more than 55 entrepreneurs across the state.

Many of these people successfully participated in the Governor’s Giant Vision Competition. Six of the 10 finalists in the business category of the Giant Vision Competition were FAST Launch participants as was the winner in that category. In the student category, six of 10 finalists had participated in FAST Launch, including the student winner.

“As if that wasn’t enough, Katherine spent countless hours mentoring these applications one on one,” Ekstrum said.

“Katherine’s dedication to developing entrepreneurs and her ability to create relationships in the community necessary to do the work make her deserving of this award.”

Finally, South Dakota Biotech announced that the state of South Dakota declared Oct. 11 – the date of its annual summit – Kevin Kephart Day, in honor of Kephart’s years of dedication to the industry.

Since 2021, Kephart has served as the deputy director of the Institute of Bioenergy, Climate and Environment in the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Before that, he was director of scientific engagement and communications for Massachusetts-based Indigo Ag. Inc., which develops microbial endophytes to enhance crop production without additional synthetic chemicals or irrigation. He joined Indigo in 2017 after retiring from a 30-year career at South Dakota State University, where his roles included serving as vice president for research and economic development.

In that role, he led $70 million in annual research growth, while his time spent creating the Sun Grant Initiative led to opportunity for ongoing research projects that enhance the state’s economic growth. His understanding of intellectual property and the need to commercialize research led to the first technology transfer office in the state of South Dakota. And his career included serving in a variety of leadership roles, fostering strong organizational growth through the expansion of strategic partnerships in fields such as crop breeding and genetics, biotechnology, human nutrition and microbiome, pharmaceutical sciences and precision agriculture.

“Kevin also spent more than a decade helping build South Dakota Biotech into the thriving organization it is today while supporting the industry statewide,” Ekstrum said. “It was an honor to be able to share Gov. Noem’s proclamation recognizing his outstanding service.”
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