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Published August 01, 2009, 07:54 AM

South Dakota research centers aid economic development

South Dakota's 2010 research centers program created by Governor Mike Rounds is aiding economic development efforts and increasing research capabilities in the state.

By: Alan Van Ormer, Prairie Business Magazine

A new wave of research centers throughout South Dakota plan to build on what has been accomplished by the first five research centers started in the state earlier this decade.

The state’s 2010 research centers program was created by Governor Mike Rounds as part of his 2010 Initiative. The first four of the state’s 10 research centers were created in 2004.

The research centers program has allowed South Dakota to become more competitive nationally, aided economic development and provided unique capabilities that have drawn the interest of companies and organizations inside and outside the state, according to Mel Ustad, the director of the South Dakota Office of Commercialization.

During the initial four years of the program, the state’s first five research centers have generated an estimated $59 million in federal and private funding. Ustad says a conservative multiplier indicates the research centers have had an economic impact of $111 million on South Dakota.

The majority of the funding has supported more than 550 researchers and graduate students working at the centers. All but two of the research centers are in the biomedical and agricultural fields.

One vital area of economic development comes in the form of increased research opportunities outside the university or in collaboration with the university, according to David Francis, a professor at South Dakota State University and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Vaccinology.

“As our researchers gain national and international recognition, they are invited to consult at corporations, conduct contract research — either through South Dakota companies or by contract in the University — and start up businesses and or attract businesses to South Dakota,” Francis says.

The Center for Detecting Rare Physics Processes with Ultra-Low Background Experiments is located in the Sanford Lab at the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) at the former Homestake gold mine in Lead, SD.

Dongming Mei, the project’s principal investigator from the University of South Dakota, says the research center’s goal is to develop commercial opportunities from production techniques developed at the center.

“The economic development plan will create many jobs at Homestake,” Mei says. “It will bring some of the brightest young scientists from around the globe and contribute to the economic vitality of South Dakota.”

One major difference between the first five research centers and the next set of research centers is that the later is more purposely connected with industry, Ustad says. The National Center for the Protection of the Financial Infrastructure at Dakota State University in Madison, SD, for example, is working closely with the financial sector.

“We are developing public and private partnerships focused on issues important to industry and helping the center to become a recognized leader in the research area,” Ustad says. “We are also developing marketing plans to maximize the economic impact of each center.”

Ustad says the goal is for each of the centers to become a self-sustaining research center able to compete for private and federal dollars needed to grow research and development activities.

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Vaccinology, which focuses on developing therapeutic technologies and products for infectious disease in humans and domestic animals, was one of the original four research centers designated in 2004 when the state legislature appropriated $2.8 million for the research centers program.

Numerous vaccines have been developed and diagnostic kits are being marketed as a result of the research center, which is a collaboration between the Veterinary Science Department at South Dakota State University and the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota.

Researchers at the center are also collaborating with Luc Montagnier, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and San Jose, CA-based Chronix Biomedical Inc. to develop novel cancer diagnostic tools.

Francis says several research groups have been formed within the research center and larger multi-institutional groups seeking funding for consortium activities. “In addition, we are working to develop multinational collaborations, which ultimately may aid us in obtaining international funding,” he added.

There are several patents pending on new products and additional invention disclosures. “Others are likely to follow,” Francis says.

The research center is in the process of developing several vaccines, which will be important for livestock, including those in South Dakota, Francis says. “We have also developed and have licensing agreements on several diagnostic tests or reagents for such,” he says. “These can be utilized broadly, including in South Dakota.”

Other non-licensed diagnostic tests used in the state and other states have also been developed.

Francis says royalties from licensing agreements help to fund more research and bring additional revenue to the state.

One of the state’s latest research centers is the Center for Detecting Rare Physics Processes with Utlra-Low Background Experiments at the Sanford Underground Laboratory at the Homestake mine in Lead. The University of South Dakota will take a lead role in the research center and will collaborate with researchers from South Dakota State, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Dakota State University, Black Hills State University and Augustana College.

The center, which began research activities in March, will conduct basic research in nuclear physics and astrophysics at the deep underground facility, leading to potential new developments in astronomy.

Mei, the project’s principal investigator who will lead the effort, envisions programs that deal with high pure germanium growth, high pure cesium iodine crystal growth and cadmium tungstate crystal growth, as well as new detector development for dark matter, double-beta decay and other low background experiments at DUSEL. Mei says a biomedical program that requires low dose radiation underground can be performed at the center as well.

“Undergraduate and graduate research will be an integral part of the program, with a goal of recruiting, retaining and graduating science majors from South Dakota, particularly students from underrepresented populations,” Mei says. “Students will acquire skills such as the use of background monitoring systems and detector calibration techniques and will learn a wide variety of marketable computer skills such as Monte Carlo simulations and data analysis methods.”

Van Ormer is a Madison, SD-based freelance writer. He can be reached at avanormer@sio.midco.net.

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