News Releases

Entrepreneur program key to success for Mines’ startups
Release Date Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Nanofiber Separations, a Mines startup company founded in 2011 by Todd Menkhaus, front left, and Hao Fong, front center, has recently received nearly $710,000 in research awards through the National Science Foundation and the Giant Governor's Vision Competition. Other team members from the School of Mines are Jennifer Leberknight, front right; Yong Zhao, back left; Nyle Hedin, back center; and Steve Schneiderman, not pictured.

RAPID CITY, S.D. (March 7, 2014) – Long known for its innovation and research, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is quickly becoming recognized as a place where technology transfers into the marketplace.

The Entrepreneur-in-Residence program at the School of Mines started in 2012 has become the recipe for success, leading university startup companies to win the prestigious Governor’s Giant Vision Award for two consecutive years.

This year’s winner, Nanofiber Separations, LLC, won not only the Giant Vision’s $20,000 first-place prize, competing against companies statewide, but was also recently awarded a $709,849 Small Business Innovation Research by the National Science Foundation. In 2011, Dr. Todd Menkhaus of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Dr. Hao Fong of the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biological Science, started the company which could lower the cost of pharmaceuticals and other purification processes by producing cutting-edge nanofiber materials that greatly enhance efficiencies.

Last year, another Mines’ startup company, CalxAqua, LLC, led by alumnus Matt Peabody, won first place in the Giant Vision competition. Technology used at CalxAqua provides a less expensive and safer alternative to other systems for removal of arsenic and heavy metals from water.

In both cases, Mines researchers developed technology on campus that led to the formation of the companies. Through the university’s new Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, a chief executive officer with a proven track record, were recruited to help commercialize the companies.

Nanofiber Separations, for example, is being led by CEO Craig Arnold whose impressive resume includes nearly six years as director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other high-profile companies. Arnold, who now lives in western Iowa, was previously CEO of both Permara, and Plymouth Energy and currently serves on the Sanford National Thought Leaders Council, among other foundations. He also managed programs at Gateway, Northrup Grumman and Boeing.

“The Entrepreneur-in-Residence program has been as successful as we hoped,” says Joseph Wright, associate vice president for research-economic development. “To win the Governor’s Giant Vision competition two years in a row shows that this program has a bright future. We have been thrilled with the level of skill we have been able to attract to the program, and what is more remarkable is that they are volunteers.”

True entrepreneurs, he says, are looking for “the opportunity” more than the paycheck.

“As a state university, we serve as a catalyst for economic development by advancing knowledge and then getting innovations into the marketplace. The Entrepreneur-in-Residence program is just one successful program that connects entrepreneurial managers with technical innovations developed by faculty,” says Mines President Heather Wilson.

Proven business leaders are brought in on a volunteer basis, willing to take the job with no salary in the true entrepreneurial spirit. Among the 10 entrepreneurs in place so far is Ronald Van Horssen, a 1973 School of Mines alumnus who is a former Inc. magazine Entrepreneur of the Year. Van Horssen studied chemical engineering at the School of Mines, received an MSIA from Carnegie Mellon and founded and was CEO of Mobile Technology Inc., the nation’s leading diagnostic imaging and shared services company in the 1980s. Since then, he has founded and served as an advisor and CEO for a wide range of enterprises, often involving new technologies.

“Our researchers are doing such good work at solving real-life problems. The application of the research is not a decade away. We are very much an applied research school and I think that’s what attracts these entrepreneurs. We give them unprecedented access to research. They see the opportunity that may be latent within our research,” Wright explains.

“The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology has become a place where entrepreneurs can incubate their ideas and engage its facilities and, more importantly, a place where the students can bring their ideas to the marketplace,” says Arnold who, as Nanofiber Separations CEO, is leading business development and commercialization efforts both domestically and internationally.

“It can take many years to become an overnight success,” Arnold says, adding that after eight years of development work at Mines, Nanofiber Separations has significant opportunity for revenue generation from multiple channels, including the biopharmaceutical, water treatment, air purification, desalination and blood products industries. “Another very important part of the story is how SDSM&T has recognized the challenges of technology transfer and their approach to addressing the challenges through their Entrepreneur-in-Residence program,” Arnold says.

Success of a start-up company requires several pieces, not the least of which is the proprietary technology behind the product and a good business plan, Wright emphasizes. Other EIR models involve a paid CEO position and other personnel, each wearing a different hat, which often involves additional layers of bureaucracy that make it slower to achieve success. 

“We are really excited because we think that our program, which is unique to this university, can be replicated all over the county. I firmly believe that in 20 years the model we are building here will be widely accepted and the way to do things,” Wright says.

“It’s an exciting time to be at the school if you’re involved in economic development and entrepreneurism,” Wright says.


About SDSM&T

Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, S.D., offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university enrolls 2,640 students from 45 states and 37 countries, with a student-to-faculty ratio of 14:1. The average starting salary for graduates is $62,400 with a 98 percent placement rate. Find us online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at