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VERMILLION, S.D. – Former University of South Dakota President James W. Abbott will assume a new leadership post at the USD Discovery District as interim president and chief executive officer, helping the innovation community move one step closer toward making the much-anticipated initial Discovery District building a reality.
Abbott, who retired in 2018 after 21 years of leading the state’s flagship university, was instrumental in the creation of the Discovery District, which turns university research into products to improve people’s lives, create jobs and boost the economy.
The 80-acre contemporary corporate and academic research park is a public-private partnership effort between USD, the City of Sioux Falls, the South Dakota Board of Regents, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the business community through Forward Sioux Falls. When fully developed, it will include an estimated 26 privately developed buildings with nearly 2,800 people working for companies housed within the district.
USD President Sheila K. Gestring said it is fitting Abbott returns to lead the innovation community, as it was his determination, vision and leadership that led to its initial development. His continued passion for the Discovery District led him to accept the position while refusing a salary, Gestring said.
“I am delighted to appoint James Abbott as interim president and CEO of the USD Discovery District,” Gestring said. “Jim understands USD’s vision to foster and support university research and promote economic development in our state. He is passionate about driving the Discovery District forward because he deeply believes in its ability to impact our state and its economy. He is a true advocate for USD and South Dakota, and we are excited to welcome him home.”
Gestring emphasized the importance of university research in driving innovation and technology, stating that the Discovery District offers a unique opportunity to connect students and graduates with entrepreneurs and researchers – connections that foster innovation and economic development.
“USD is committed to serving South Dakota throughout our initiatives and programs, and our work at the Discovery District is no exception,” Gestring said. “Through these efforts, USD provides a trained workforce that attracts innovation-driven companies to the state and contributes to our growing South Dakota economy.”
Gestring and Abbott point to the success of the Graduate Education and Applied Research (GEAR) Center, and the pioneering USD biomedical engineering Ph.D. program, both of which are located on USD’s Sioux Falls campus, right next door to the Discovery District. USD’s GEAR Center is already full, and biotech companies are often referred elsewhere or unable to establish operations in South Dakota, Gestring said. USD’s biomedical engineering students and graduates are already driving innovation in the state through start-ups, and Gestring and Abbott envision a future where these researchers have a dedicated space to expand their innovation-driven businesses and commercialize their technology to help grow companies in South Dakota.
“The research happening on USD’s Sioux Falls campus has significant commercial potential, and through the Discovery District, we will be able to provide development and incubation space where researchers, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs can commercialize their products,” Abbott said. “Biotech, biomedical and other companies with great ideas and products need a place to refine, incubate and produce their products. The challenge and opportunity for the Discovery District is to create that space.”
The concept for the Discovery District began more than two decades ago, with leaders in business and education coming together to set a strategy on growing technology-based business in South Dakota. In 2012, the legislature passed and Governor Daugaard signed legislation to authorize research parks on lands controlled by the South Dakota Board of Regents. The USD research park corporation was formed later that year. The USD Discovery District name was formalized in 2015.
Abbott’s impact on USD and South Dakota is well-recognized across the state. During his two-decade tenure as USD president, Abbott prioritized investments in student scholarship, faculty recruitment, facility modernization and innovative research; scholarships and financial awards nearly tripled during his tenure and campus saw six new buildings, including the Muenster University Center, Sanford School of Medicine, Beacom School of Business, the Wellness Center and several renovations. He spearheaded efforts to elevate USD to Division I athletics, raising the university’s profile beyond athletic competition and instilling an even greater sense of Coyote pride among alumni and friends.
Through his efforts, USD saw its enrollment increase from 6,500 to 10,000 students, addressing South Dakota’s workforce needs and preparing capable leaders for the state, nation and world. He was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2017.
“To put it simply – Jim Abbott is the kind of leader who can take a vision and turn it into reality,” Gestring said. “I am confident in his ability to turn the USD Discovery District into a bustling economic engine that attracts new industries like biotech to South Dakota and creates new jobs for our graduates.”
Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.