Biotech association leader: Industry is seeing tremendous growth

May 17, 2018

This piece is presented by Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

With 60 members and growing, South Dakota Biotech helps foster collaboration and common goals among the state’s diverse biotech industry.

At the center of it is executive director Joni Johnson, who has held the role for more than five years and has an office at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

We caught up with her to learn more about the direction of her industry and the opportunities it offers South Dakotans.

First, how exactly do you define biotechnology?

At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology. Biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. We have used the biological processes of microorganisms for more than 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products.

Modern biotechnology provides breakthrough products and technologies to combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use less and cleaner energy, and have safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes.

What do you think is driving biotech growth in South Dakota?

We have an emerging and powerful foundation of biotech in South Dakota. We are experiencing bioscience-driving innovation and bridging the gap in health care and value-added agriculture. South Dakota is in a very unique position to integrate advanced  bioscience and agriculture, our two largest industries. Examples of this are SAB Biotherapeutics, which uses genetically engineered bovine to create drugs to treat currently untreatable diseases; advanced biomanufacturing spanning the biofermentation production process for producing animal biologics; human biopharmaceuticals; and industrial biomanufacturing like what’s happening at POET.

How much potential do you see for this industry in our state? What are you most excited about?

The South Dakota bioscience industry has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. We have over 500 biotech companies that employ more than 6,000 skilled workers with an average salary of $61,500. Throughout the state there are 19 research centers that focus on biotechnology. These centers encourage public-private partnerships, offer several scholarship endowments that support students to further careers in STEM and are part of a proof-of-concept fund that provides investments to eligible biotech companies at a critical stage of growth. And this is just the beginning. We will continue to attract and build strategically aligned bioscience companies as we grow our locally trained employee base.

What’s the biggest surprise you find people have when it comes to biotech in South Dakota?

Because our population is small and we’re in the Midwest, people don’t realize how much research is done here. As often as I can, I bring folks to South Dakota and walk them through our companies and universities. Most of them have a jaw-dropping experience and call South Dakota the “hidden gem” of the biotech industry. They are blown away by our establishments, our skilled workers and how efficient it is to work through the state’s regulatory process.

Your office is at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship. Why did you decide to locate there?

Zeal started as a technology incubator. And, although they have grown beyond technology, they still have lab space that houses several of our member companies. Being located in the same building at GOED, SBA, SBIR and South Dakota Technology & Manufacturing Solutions is handy as our companies often use their services. So they can meet with me, then head to the SBIR office, for example. An added bonus: They have unlimited coffee and really delicious popcorn.

What kinds of benefits does the biotech association offer members?

The association aims to initiate progress for members by fostering industry partnerships, supporting research innovations and working closely with state and federal policy-makers through:

  • Advocacy, policy and regulation monitoring.
  • Access to resources for financing, expansion and commercialization.
  • Significant cost-savings programs.
  • Connections for collaboration through networking and events.
  • Opportunities and forums for education, training and promotion.

If people want to get more involved with biotech locally, what would you suggest they do?

Check out our website, sdbio.org, for a list of members, benefits and industry updates. Also, folks can reach me at jjohnson@sdbio.org or 605-274-3714.

Biotech association leader: Industry is seeing tremendous growth

With 60 members and growing, South Dakota Biotech helps foster collaboration and common goals among the state’s diverse biotech industry. At the center of it is executive director Joni Johnson, who shared with us what’s new in her world.

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