By Peter Carrels
Now in its earliest stages, USD’s Discovery District will deliver a significant contribution to the region’s economy and quality-of-life. This forward-looking residential, research park will attract and blend a community of entrepreneurs, scientists and knowledge workers. At the top of the list of those who will benefit: USD students.
At this moment a trio of impressive buildings comprising University Center are the only structural occupants of this locality in far northwest Sioux Falls. But that will soon begin to change.
The landscape near that campus awaits development of a unique, new neighborhood — a community, really, and as you stand at the scene you summon your imagination to animate the vision that will one day come to life here.
This will be our state’s first residential research park, founded expressly to encourage, cultivate and nurture scientific, entrepreneurial and marketing innovation by its residents and others who work and visit there. A pleasant, civil, expansive enclave of laboratories, offices, conference quarters, commercial and retail businesses, housing and green space will hum non-stop with a vibrant, creative vitality. This will be an exciting center of motivated thinkers and doers, a place where inspired ideas will be guided to saleable fruition.
Expectations are, and should be, high. The master plan and mission statements for this new “community”— formally known as the Discovery District— are appropriately ambitious.
“Our vision for the University of South Dakota Discovery District,” wrote Richard Naser, president of the Discovery District, “is to create a dynamic and collaborative environment where talent, research and innovative businesses interact to create new ideas, new technologies and new opportunities impacting not only our region, but our world.”
Naser described the district as a destination where USD students and faculty will interact with others who are like-minded, inventive and thoughtful. “By creating partnerships with industry, investors and government, we will create the physical community and infrastructure vital to taking ideas and making them reality,” he said.
Exciting physical changes will occur in the Discovery District. Artist renderings depicting the district reveal crisp, modern architecture and a pleasant ambience that will inspire and enliven intellectual and imaginative capacities. Immense opportunities for the university, and for all of South Dakota, are predicted. Developing the Discovery District is one of those rare opportunities that possesses the potential to dramatically influence the present and future for the better.
South Dakota’s Gov. Dennis Daugaard has lofty hopes for the Discovery District. He envisions the district as a place where South Dakota’s fledgling, burgeoning biotechnology industry can flourish.
Indeed, biotechnology is viewed as a focal sector for the district—and with good reason. In 2014, bio-science accounted for the largest share of academic research and development (R & D) expenditures in South Dakota. The total that year reached $60 million. Between 2012 and 2015 bioscience R & D in the state resulted in 254 patents and more than $20 million in venture capital investments. Growth projections for bioscience and biotechnology are notably appealing.
USD President James W. Abbott believes the Discovery District will contribute to the state’s economy while also providing enhanced opportunities for students. “The USD Discovery District will attract and retain talent, and expand our state’s research capacity,” Abbott said. “At the same time it will allow us to turn that research into products that will help people. By accelerating the launch of innovative companies we will expand opportunities for future generations of South Dakotans.”
The value of biomedical innovation and subsequent commercial application is explained by Dr. Mary Nettleman, dean of the USD Sanford School of Medicine, and vice president of Health Affairs at USD. “When we think of a biomedical discovery,” said Nettleman, “we often think of a scientist in a lab surrounded by test tubes shouting ‘eureka!’ But if the discovery stayed in the lab, what use would it be? The process of translating discovery into reality is as important as the discovery. The USD Discovery District creates the infrastructure that is needed to turn isolated discoveries into viable businesses. In the future, demand will only increase for devices that make our lives easier or pharmaceuticals that ease our pain or cure our diseases.”
Daniel Engebretson, Ph.D., directs the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, and that program is housed in Sioux Falls at the University Center. Engebretson is eager for his department to participate in opportunities associated with the Discovery District. He has witnessed his program transition from a focus on academics to preparing students to initiate and support problem-solving.
“Because there will be a strong bioscience flavor to the Discovery District,” explained Engebretson, “there will be a synergistic relationship between what we’re doing and the district. Our students will be heavily involved in the Discovery District. It is our intention to not only educate important members of the research and bioscience workforce, we also want our students to become leaders in this field. USD’s mission to produce students with a strong liberal arts background dovetails perfectly with this goal. We understand that problem-solving in biosciences and bio-engineering will require interdisciplinary skills and knowledge. That is a hallmark of USD’s liberal arts educational experience. Our students – the ones aiming at science and research degrees – will be prepared to develop meaningful solutions to problems by understanding that problem-solving usually involves integrating multiple disciplines.”
Current efforts within the USD biomedical engineering program include developing biomaterials for drug delivery, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, nanomaterials for biological sensing, and microfluidics and nanomaterials for neuralengineering. Cardiovascular applications for drug-coated balloons is a specific example of a research project possessing tremendous potential. Several students have already progressed into creating business models and existing businesses to market ideas and research projects and concepts.
In 2009, South Dakota’s Legislature commenced the process of creating the Discovery District by approving the acquisition of land in northwest Sioux Falls. Three years later – in 2012 – state legislators authorized the establishment and operation of “research parks” on land controlled by thestate’s Board of Regents (BOR), and that same year the University of South Dakota Research Park, Inc. was officially created.
A master plan for the yet-to-be-named research park endeavor was conceived in 2014, and the following year the name Discovery District was conferred on the ambitious blueprint. The USD Research Park corporation then leased an 80-acre parcel from the BOR to move forward with development of the new research community. That tract is part of a larger 252-acre parcel owned by the Regents. The overall size of the BOR's property offers considerable flexibility and growth for USD’s research park within the same contiguous and desirable area in Sioux Falls, near the intersection of Interstates 29 and 90.
The groundwork of the Discovery District has been carefully formulated. Existing, high-performance buildings positioned to serve the district and viewed as antecedent facilities include the GEAR Center (Graduate Education and Applied Research), home to USD’s biomedical engineering program and specialized science/research suites and offices; a classroom building serving University Center; and the Science and Technology Building, a 50,000 square-foot, cutting-edge collective of labs, classrooms, meeting spaces and offices.
Dan Engebretson and others at USD are crafting new associate and undergraduate programs to accompany the existing graduate curriculum that will foster additional bioscience professionals. Engebretson referred a question about the future job prospects for these new professionals to a 2014 federal Bureau of Labor study that indicated employment of biomedical engineers is forecast to grow 23 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. The Discovery District takes advantage of this projected growth.
“Not too many years ago there were few opportunities for bioscience scientists and researchers in South Dakota and this region,” Engebretson explained. “This has changed, and will continue to change. Right now there are about 400 people employed in South Dakota and the Sioux Falls area in the biomedical field. It’s not unreasonable to anticipate 1,000 people and more in the field working in Sioux Falls and South Dakota.”
“The Discovery District will give our students a rewarding landing place to pursue their careers,” he said. Tenant prospecting reveals that companies already centered in Sioux Falls and others based nationally and internationally are contemplating a committed future in Sioux Falls. Enterprise targets, described Rich Naser, not only include those in biomedical engineering, but also in behavioral sciences, genomics, infectious diseases/influenza vaccine development, and the rehabilitation sciences.
Existing USD programs such as the Center for Brain and Behavioral Research, the Sanford School of Medicine, the School of Health Sciences, and the Beacom School of Business are poised to immediately offer tangible contributions and receive invaluable benefits from the Discovery District. Relationships with researchers, academics and practitioners at South Dakota State University and Sanford and Avera health systems strengthen the viability of the district.
Partnerships are a hallmark of the district, Rich Naser said, listing USD, the South Dakota Board of Regents, the City of Sioux Falls, the State of South Dakota and its Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and the organization Forward Sioux Falls (a joint initiative of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and the Sioux Falls Development Foundation) as the project’s critical, strategic and supportive partners.
“The breadth of serious partners involved in this project is unusual for a project like this,” Naser declared. “This can be a textbook model about cooperation and successful partnerships in research park development. In the case of the Discovery District it is vital that all partners be engaged if the district is to flourish.”
According to Naser, 2017 is bringing exciting development to the far-reaching project. Ground was broken for a core street -2,800 feet in length- and associated utility infrastructure to serve the district. Proposals for a hotel complex are now being solicited. Among a number of companies who have already expressed an interest in establishing a presence in the district, Naser is in consultations with several who are supplying input regarding design requirements necessary for the district’s first research facility. An established “anchor” company has been identified, and a two-phased development involving a facility measuring 109,000 square feet will be undertaken. Determinations about lease rates and creating a formal and sequential building program for the district are proceeding. Naser also reported that the existing GEAR Center will be expanded by some 25,000 square feet.
The diversification and evolution of economic development is evidenced by the steady progress associated with the Discovery District. The district’s near future will see successful and innovative catalyst companies stimulating additional investment and entrepreneurial activity. The district will grow and thrive, and its ripple effects will be felt throughout our state and region. A discernible momentum of the Discovery District will also positively impact the University of South Dakota, enhancing departments and programs, as the university continues to be called on to educate the region’s next generation of workforce professionals and leaders.