Biotech Combines Science With Business

Jun 27, 2017

Biotechnology is a booming business, and South Dakota companies are competing with organizations around the globe. Local scientists pioneer medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, and research. A researcher-turned-business developer outlines his assessment for area investors and scientists in an extended interview.

South Dakota Biotech's annual summit brought professionals together for the discussion, and some future scientists help equip fellow kids.

Children from the Boys and Girls Club shuffle into a room with technology vendors. They lead people in suits to long tables placed end-to-end. Then they instruct.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

"Put in aprons. Then you put in goggles. Then you put in gloves, and then you grab one of those notebooks, and you put it in," one girls says. "Oh, shoot! I’m way behind."

Small kids with big personalities pepper the assembly line. They collaborate with biotechnology professionals to fill pull-string bags with science gear.

Molly Sherff is a sales representative for Thermo Fischer Scientific. She’s also the de facto tour guide slash backpack program organizer.

"So now they have the personal protective equipment such as the lab goggles, the chemical-resistant apron, and the gloves to protect them when doing any experiments, even it’s just simple experiments," Scherff says. "It helps them getting into the habits of understanding their role later down the road as scientists."

Scherff says the safety essentials help kids dress the part. Line workers move along the table and pull the drawstrings before dropping the black sacks in a box. Then they high-five their taller counterparts.

"What it allows us to do is then bring these backpacks into the hands of those out in our community to help promote science, technology, education, and math through STEM programs," Scherff says.

"We have a STEM room in our Boys and Girls Clubs, where we can do some experimenting. We can let the kids explore," Rebecca Wimmer says.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Wimmer is CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Sioux Empire.

"Some of the kids that come to our center maybe haven’t experienced those things before, and so giving them a chance to explore science and even think about careers, and giving them an opportunity to have that hands-on experience and think about those things is just one way that we can assist," Wimmer says.

Wimmer’s group from the Boys and Girls Club talk with people at the South Dakota BioTech summit. They discuss how science and technology mesh through a familiar medium: kool-aid.

"I have one cup with a fairly dark green solution in it, a second cup with a lighter green solution, and then water," Chris Wilson says. 

He is a technical sales representative for Biotech Instruments. Wilson says he talks to adults about biotech tools as simply as he explains them to kids.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

"I was talking about absorbence, where we assign this number between zero and four. Some are fluorescents; some are luminescence.  The luminescence markers are kind of like firefly luminescence when you see the firefly," Wilson says. "We can measure that light signal. At the end of the day, we’ll have a negative sample that doesn’t glow, and we’ll have a positive that glows. We’re just putting a number to that, and then somehow the scientists will have an experiment, and they need to be able to tell negatives and positives. That’s it."

Wilson shows youngsters how that works. He says scientists use similar tests in labs that examine animal health and human health. Biotech advocates say capturing kids’ attention is key, because they say the industry is primed for rapid growth.

Scientific research requires investors who believe in potential breakthroughs, but that’s not necessarily enough to support and cultivate biotech companies. Christoph Bausch is chief science officer for SAB Biotherapeutics in Sioux Falls. He grew up on a Nebraska farm, and his parents worked in medicine. Bausch says he left the Midwest to chase a science career at companies around the country. Then he returned to the heartland to further his work in biotechnology.

Bausch says South Dakota has distinct biotechnology advantages. He points to access to local money for start-ups and strong ag, industrial, and medical industries. But Bausch says the state lacks investment potential for growing businesses, and he says a lack of wet lab space restricts the number of people who can conduct novel research. Listen to an extended conversation with Bausch about combining technology skills and business knowledge in a rapidly changing industry.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB