Innovation leader builds career while helping biotech startups achieve big milestones

Sue Lancaster doesn’t have a typical workday.

From her home in Sioux Falls, she might be meeting virtually with contacts in Thailand or Indonesia.

After that, she could be supporting an effort to expand South Dakota’s first licensed vaccine facility or helping further commercialize a unique feed ingredient for the aquaculture industry.

Her schedule might include chairing a meeting of South Dakota Biotech, the state’s industry trade association.

Or it could involve a conversation with a young person interested in pursuing a career in the sciences – someone whom Lancaster could have been not all that long ago.

“I work in startups, so I work along with my colleagues whenever it’s needed,” said the vice president of corporate development and strategy for South Dakota Innovation Partners.

“I have non-negotiables in my life, and I prioritize to build a life and not just a resume, but you do what you need to do to get the job done.”

For Lancaster, who grew up in Aberdeen, the past 14 years since graduating from Roncalli High School have brought big opportunities to blend science and business skills as she has helped South Dakota startups build global relationships.

“I was fortunate to have good advice and the right timing to take this once-in-a-lifetime entrepreneurial experience,” she said. “I was given opportunities, traveling across the U.S. and elsewhere, and meeting impactful people very early in my career, communicating with people from the C-suite to the production floor, so I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of exposure.”

Growing up, Lancaster always had ideas. She would sketch them on a notepad and was inspired by her father, a pharmacist, to find ways to help patients.

“I was the child who told my parents all I wanted to be was an inventor. I was convinced I could go to college and that could be my thing,” she said.

Inspired by health and science teachers in elementary and middle school, she gravitated toward science.

“When I was in eighth or ninth grade, some teachers reached out and asked me to help with a women in science program. They said it would be a good fit given my natural curiosity in the field.”

Lancaster also was a natural leader, a class president and then student body president, and she ran with the concept.

She brought in friends to the women in science initiative and ultimately helped form an organization that did everything from advocate at the Capitol in Pierre to host a communitywide conference celebrating opportunities for women in STEM fields.

It led her to USD, where she majored in biology and did a lot of work in psychology, debating a future in medicine or engineering.

A presentation from the biomedical engineering department on an antimicrobial paint sparked the biggest interest, though. She connected with vice president of research Dan Engebretson, who gave her a job as a graduate assistant at the GEAR Center in Sioux Falls.

“He let me take on a project, basically handed me a bunch of documents and said we need to figure out the standards for how this  paint could be commercialized,” she said. “He gave me the freedom to discover and offered advice but fostered that entrepreneurial do-it-yourself mind-set.”

In graduate school, she helped with a project developing cardiovascular stents, learning about the world of drug delivery and medical devices, when a fellow student reached out and introduced her to South Dakota Innovation Partners in 2010.

The Sioux Falls-based organization was fairly new at that point, with a goal of helping researchers and entrepreneurs interested in launching innovative products and services to help solve global problems.

“So I ended up reviewing different technologies from all over the U.S and elsewhere and prepared due diligence on its commercial potential or not, and that turned into becoming their first employee after I graduated with my master’s degree,” Lancaster said. “And that started my journey with Innovation Partners.”

In the past eight years, she has helped guide two startups to significant milestones. Prairie AquaTech, which uses a natural biological process to convert soybean meal to a high-quality feed ingredient, and Medgene Labs, an immunological services provider with a platform vaccine production system that allows for rapid updates of vaccines to prevent disease.

“I didn’t know how to raise capital, how to approach investors, or general business for that matter. No one is going to put you in that situation in your early 20s, but Mark Luecke bet on me as a partner,” Lancaster said.

“I was giving pitches at conferences and events, and they were a little shaky, but if you don’t go and aren’t exposed, it’s hard to fail and keep learning to better yourself every day. So it was about putting yourself out there and saying yes and giving it a try.”

Lancaster’s work now is starting to pay off in major ways. Prairie AquaTech has a commercial plant in Volga and is selling into different markets. She spends a lot of time working on strategic partnerships, de-risking and market expansion.

“It’s a really interesting win for Prairie AquaTech because we collaborated with local groups and received grant funding and were able to construct a pilot facility, which decreased risk to ultimately lead to a commercial facility,” she said.

“That’s the intention of Innovation Partners – research commercialization – so to be able to pull research, spin it into a rural community and create new jobs – and that’s what we’ve been able to do in Volga while fostering that mission of innovation.”

Medgene is approaching another sort of milestone. Its platform is in the process of becoming federally licensed to rapidly deploy vaccines for emerging or changing diseases. It’s a technology that began in animal health but has applications for human health, Lancaster said.

“Part of my job is looking at how to leverage the platform in other ways,” she said. “In animals, we can get a vaccine from sequence to customer in 21 days. We’re having to educate about our system, so a lot of the time is less about marketing and sales and more about education.”

Lancaster’s career at South Dakota Innovation Partners has taken her from a project manager to director of life science operations, director of business development, chief technology officer and her current vice president role, which she has held since late 2014.

“The ability to take on more and see it from an idea to in a customer’s hands and working with incredible people and partners who challenge me is what has kept me here,” she said. “I’ve held most jobs within both businesses at some point in time – managing the operations, quality, business development, so I’ve been able to adapt and change, and that’s critical for me.”

She also has been able to become a leader in the state bioscience industry, and she currently serves as board chair for South Dakota Biotech, the state affiliate of the international BIO organization.

“I love advocacy, so I like to look at what we can do as a board to build the biotech community up and help create positive change from an advocacy and education standpoint,” she said.

“And our board is filled with a wealth of different experiences, so I love the opportunity of learning from them and their unique backgrounds. And on the education side, finding opportunities for young people is critically important to me and having the ecosystem of entrepreneurship because we have to keep building that infrastructure. There’s a lot of talent here, and we need to make sure we’re supporting opportunities and people to continue to build the biotech infrastructure.”

Lancaster “is an invaluable part of our board and our broader bioscience community,” said Joni Johnson, South Dakota Biotech executive director. “She has so many skills that this industry needs, and it’s been exciting to watch her apply them for the benefit of startup bioscience companies. We’re grateful she’s shown so much leadership so early in her career and can’t wait to see what else she will continue to do to evolve our industry.”

When she looks at her future, Lancaster sees herself ultimately maybe not as the inventor she envisioned as a child but certainly as a business creator.

“My ultimate goal is to run a company of my own, something I would build. I think that’s the consolidation of all the experiences I’ve had,” she said.

“If I’m not challenged, I get bored, and I’m never settled. My focus is on continuing to learn new things and finding ways of having the most impact.”