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Build and They Will Come: Ascent Innovation Groundbreaking
South Dakota Ag Connection - 10/10/2019

The vision to ignite innovation in Rapid City is accelerating with the construction of a landmark 40,000-square-foot building for startup ventures. Community leaders joined together at the Ascent Innovation Campus Groundbreaking Wednesday to celebrate the new culture of entrepreneurship, commercialization, and technology.

Growth in a tech-sector economy is impossible without one essential ingredient: human capital. For decades, many scientists and engineers trained at SD Mines left the area for employment in other parts of the country and world. Today, this is changing. The new Ascent Innovation Campus is a cornerstone in the effort to grow a vibrant, tech-based economy in the Black Hills. Ascent Innovation is an expanding entrepreneur-centered ecosystem that connects innovators and fledgling business owners with the essential ingredients needed at each stage of business development. It's a talent pipeline connecting students with jobs in industry while providing a landing spot in the Black Hills area for established companies. Under the newly formed Elevate Rapid City, Ascent Innovation is a key part of realizing exponential growth in the Black Hills tech economy.

Entrepreneurs have different needs at different stages of business development. For example, an enterprising student or professor at Mines who has a brilliant idea but has never started a business has a very different set of needs than a Mines alumnus who is operating a successful high-tech startup and needs access to capital and an affordable space to expand operations. By supporting the needs of a wide range of entrepreneurs, Ascent Innovation is fostering the development of the high-tech economy in the Black Hills. The Mines student with a brilliant idea can take part in university-sponsored business plan competitions, picking up valuable skills and even some prize money along the way. This student can also apply for the annual Braun Inventor Award for a chance to win $5,000 and a free patent application. Students, professors, and seasoned alumni can tap into a wide range of expertise in the Mines' Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program for consulting, business planning, and valuable advice from those who've done it all before. The campus office of economic development can also help with access to angel investors and connections to networks of successful companies in the area and across the nation. The resources under Elevate Rapid City, including the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce and Economic Growth Division, in addition to the West River Business Services Center, the Black Hills Angel Fund and other business support services, are all working together to support the expansion of tech based economy in the area. The model is working. Companies such as VRC Metal Systems and Property Meld are graduating from Ascent Innovation and in the process of renovating new spaces in the community. Meanwhile, a group of promising new companies are waiting to move into the new Ascent Innovation Campus.

Located halfway between Mines and Rapid City's Main Street Square, the new Ascent Innovation Campus will be placed to connect Mines with historic downtown. The building will also house South Dakota-based businesses that source Mines students as interns (see more in the article Building Talent Pipelines on pages 20-21).

This model has proven effective in luring business expansion to the Black Hills. Caterpillar opened shop in the Ascent Innovation Center on the Mines Campus and employed a stream of Mines interns. In 2010, the company opened a new engineering design center in Rapid City that brought about one hundred jobs to the community.

"Our mission to support growing highly skilled tech-centered jobs in Rapid City is at the core of everything we do," says Terri Haverly, Ascent Innovation executive director. "And the more these startup companies and branching corporations are supported, the more our economy continues to grow as well.

The Black Hills area is witnessing major developments that are helping fuel a tech sector boom: The expansion of the healthcare industry, including a new Regional Health Orthopedics and Specialty Hospital and other medical and pharmaceutical-related businesses; the continued expansion of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, including the billion dollar investment in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) coming online in the 2020s; and the locating of B-21 bombers at Ellsworth Air Force Base and the industry tied to this expanded mission.

"The fact that we have three of these 'game changers' all happening at once is incredible," says Joseph Wright, vice president of the Office of Research and Economic Development at SD Mines. A boom in the technology economy in the Black Hills could be viewed as disruptive growth--a change that shatters the status quo. But this would be a misunderstanding. The bedrock industries in South Dakota, agriculture and tourism, will only see benefits from the injection of high-tech jobs into this economy. Visitors to the Black Hills will see new buildings and a vibrant thriving community. Innovation centered around Mines has the potential to benefit the agriculture industry, from self-driving tractors to the expansion of value-added products such as research on turning corn stalks into biodegradable plastic. The creation of the Ascent Innovation Campus is thanks to cooperative support for tech development in the Black Hills from university, business, and political leaders.

"This new development is likely to spark economic growth in an area that has the potential to be a leader in technology manufacturing because of its proximity to the renowned South Dakota School of Mines & Technology," says U.S. Senator John Thune.

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