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SDSU to develop entrepreneurial ecosystem

Researchers on South Dakota State University’s campus will now have a framework to help them turn their innovative discoveries into viable commercial products, thanks to the announcement of the National Science Foundation’s Great Plains Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Hub
 
“When great minds from the Great Plains unite, great things are bound to follow,” said Rajesh Kavasseri, associate dean for research for the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering, who will also serve as SDSU’s institutional lead on the grant. 
 
The five-year, $14 million grant will see North Dakota State University as the lead institution for the Hub, with SDSU, the University of South Dakota, the University of North Dakota, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Dakota State University, the University of Nebraska Omaha and the University of Wyoming serving as partner institutions. 
 
NSF’s I-Corps program began in 2011 with the goal to successfully train an entrepreneurial workforce, nurture an innovation ecosystem while bringing cutting-edge technologies developed in university laboratories to market.
 
“Our job, on our campus, is to find the people here who are doing the work that could be easily commercialized,” said Todd Letcher, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the SDSU faculty lead for the grant. “We’ll figure out how to assemble the team and then get them into (NSF’s) I-Corps training process.” 
 
I-Corps hubs provide training to research teams to help them bring their ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace. The program’s training is experiential and immersive and helps prepare scientists to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and accelerate the economic and societal benefits of research projects and discoveries. Each I-Corps team has an entrepreneurial lead, an industry mentor and a technical lead. Over the course of eight weeks, the teams receive entrepreneurial education, mentoring, and funding to accelerate their fundamental research into emerging products and services that can attract subsequent third-party funding. 
 
NSF has previously set up other regional hubs with the goal of creating—and sustaining—a diverse and inclusive innovation network across the country. For example, the West Region Hub, which began earlier this year, is led by the University of Southern California and includes the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Utah—among other institutions—as partners. 
 
The Great Plains Hub will fill a sizeable hole in the central U.S., as most of the other regional hubs are located along the coasts. 
 
“The very grand vision of this is—how do we take federally funded projects and then translate them to create economic opportunities,” Kavasseri said. “These institutions around the Great Plains region, there are a lot of talented researchers who conduct federally funded research but most of the time these works ends up as published papers. Can we go beyond that to create new economic opportunities? What does it take to do that?”
 
Kavasseri explained that it will take two things to translate research into economic opportunities: a network of people working collaboratively and a set of processes and system in place. 
 
“The Hub basically brings these two elements together,” Kavasseri said. “It creates the network and puts the framework in place, thereby enabling this mechanism.”
 
The Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering—which will serve as SDSU’s “home”—will work in collaboration with the SDSU Research Park and the other colleges to create a unique entrepreneurial ecosystem. The network of researchers, faculty and resources will help to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, laying the groundwork to develop a network that will help launch and support startup companies—for both faculty and students. 
 
“Ultimately, the goal would be to get somebody from their lab here on campus to a startup company out at the Research Park,” Letcher explained. 
 
SDSU’s involvement in the grant was made possible by Daniel Scholl, vice president for research and economic development at SDSU, and a number of existing relationships, specifically, the university’s longstanding partnership with Dwaine Chapel, executive director of the SDSU Research Park. 
 
Another overarching goal of the Hub is to cultivate, foster and enrich the entrepreneurial mindset and attitude on campus, from first-year students to Ph.D. candidates and everyone in-between. 
 
“I think we have some great minds from the Great Plains that are going to unite,” Kavasseri said. “That’s going to create the next big thing and great things are going to follow.”
 
David Grewell, NDSU professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering and director of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2, an NSF industry/university cooperative research center), will serve as the Great Plains I-Corps Hub director. He will oversee the Hub activities, and coordinate efforts of all partner institutions.
 
“The I-Corps program has a proven record of being an economic catalyst,” Grewell said. “The team of institutions that represent the Great Plains region was highly cooperative and enthusiastic during the proposal concept development and I have absolute confidence that the Hub will quickly grow on many levels and the region will benefit from its economic impacts.”
 
Since 2020, there have been more than 1,036 startups formed through NSF’s I-Corps program with over $700 million in funding raised. The program has trained more than 5,800 researchers. 
Image for Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering
Image for Department of Mechanical Engineering

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