Discovery District Creating Community of Innovation in Sioux Falls

By Andrea Van Essen | May 31, 2019

Things are heating up on the northeast edge of Sioux Falls.

The USD Discovery District, a project that’s been in the works for more than 20 years, officially opened for business in 2017 when its first two streets, West Nobel Street and North Frances Avenue, were completed, creating access to the first building sites. 

West Nobel Street was named for Ernest Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939, who was born in Canton and attended the University of South Dakota for his undergraduate degree. North Frances Avenue was named in honor of USD faculty member, Frances Kelsey, a professor of pharmacology who blocked the FDA’s authorization of thalidomide, a drug proven to cause serious birth defects.

If the streets’ namesakes aren’t enough of a hint, the district’s purpose is to inspire and stimulate innovation in the areas of science and technology.

“The idea is to create a community of innovation where students have the opportunity to intern, researchers have the opportunity to collaborate with private companies, and new products or services are brought to market that have a significant impact, not only on Sioux Falls and the state but hopefully on the country and the world,” said Rich Naser, president of the USD Discovery District. 

The district will function as a mixed-use development, adapted from the traditional research park model with a goal of integrating with the surrounding community.

“A big stretch of this will be urban,” Naser said. “Think of about six blocks, like a downtown.”

While tenants will primarily include science and technology-focused companies and laboratory spaces, such as SAB Biotherapeutics and Alumend, Naser says there will also be room for commercial, residential, and hospitality development.

“That’s the idea of a district versus a campus or a park,” said Naser. “You want it to be integrated with the surrounding community, not isolated. It’s supposed to draw people in.”

According to Naser, the goal is that 26 new buildings will be built over the next 25 years, with around 2,800 people working in the district.

“And these are people who will be paid a good wage. We want to create opportunities for our best and brightest to stay or to come back,” said Naser.

The USD GEAR Center, which houses USD’s biomedical engineering program, functions as the district’s incubator for life science, providing a home for research, for both the private sector and the university. Companies working through the GEAR center are able to access equipment and resources that can have a powerful impact on the success of their projects. 

“Companies that are here can access over one million dollars’ worth of specialized equipment,” said Naser. “There are opportunities to collaborate here with researchers and students, to hire them for projects.”

The GEAR Center also includes a pharmaceutical manufacturing space where people can produce drugs, biologics, or devices for use in pre-clinical or early stage clinical trials.

It’s the type of asset that would typically cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to access, says Naser.

How Does This Affect the Sioux Falls Startup Ecosystem?

Resources like the GEAR center provide a unique opportunity for early-stage companies and startups.

Access to advanced technology services offers young companies the powerful boost needed to propel them through the research and development stages of growth.

These opportunities will be available to all companies and researchers within the Discovery District. As aforementioned, the district hopes to attract at least 26 tenants over the next 25 years. 

According to Naser, the district’s efforts to attract companies will be in line with those of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation and the state of South Dakota.

“We’ll do outreach and try to find companies that have partnership opportunities, either with the university or the healthcare systems … we have healthcare and private healthcare research assets that are far beyond what most communities of our size have,” said Naser.

The district will have a set of permitted-use criteria, which Naser says will primarily include a focus on innovation and opportunities to collaborate with or hire university students.

“We’re developing and continuing to develop human capital,” said Naser. “None of this occurs, whether it’s entrepreneurship, innovation, or economic development, without talent. We’re creating that talent, and we’re at a size where we can attract it back, if we need to.”

Naser believes the business community in Sioux Falls is dynamic and thriving, and the Discovery District can only add to that.

“It adds a breadth to the entrepreneurial community,” said Naser. “It’s on the far end of the spectrum, where it takes millions of dollars for these life science companies to bring a product to market. It’s that hard innovation focus.”

But beyond the science and innovation, Naser says opportunities are available for collaboration throughout the entrepreneurial community.

“Every one of these companies has marketing, accounting, and legal needs, so there’s lots of opportunities to interact with these other companies,” said Naser.

Furthermore, many of the companies and industries the district is targeting have a focus not only within Sioux Falls and the state of South Dakota, but on the country and internationally.

“Collectively, it helps put us on the map,” Naser said.