Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Building the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Mines alumni Todd Kenner, Mitch Nachtigall, and Ray Hespen are three of many Mines graduates helping drive the Black Hills high-tech economy.


South Dakota Mines has a long history of innovators who turned their ideas into successful businesses.  Some past successes include Daktronics, RESPEC, RPM & Associates, C-Lock, and a long list of others. The latest crop of newer companies that were spurred by innovation on campus or by enterprising alumni include VRC Metal Systems, Nanopareil, Darceo, Property Meld, and many more.

In 2021, the tech sector in the Black Hills is entering a new chapter with the Ascent Innovation building. The facility, run by Elevate Rapid City, is situated between the university and downtown. It connects the business center of Rapid City with the Mines campus, and it is the heart of the new tech-based economic boom now starting in the Hills.

Ascent Innovation The grand opening of the Ascent Innovation building is set for Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. It’s a huge milestone in the effort to spur tech-based economic growth in the Black Hills. Like all milestones, this one wasn’t achieved overnight; it includes decades of past work involving many players who helped forge current successes. One of those players is Butch Skillman (ME 73 / MS ME 74). He served as assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of the university’s Office of Tech Transfer. In 2005, Skillman worked with Terry Rock (ME 70) and others to help create the Engineers Make Great Entrepreneurs (EMGE) speaker series and scholarship competition. EMGE continues to this day on campus and has inspired hundreds of students over the past 16 years.

These past successes didn’t come without challenges. Skillman found some frustration during his tenure in the effort to build what President Rankin calls a “culture of innovation and entrepreneurship” on campus. “About 10 percent of what makes a great entrepreneur actually is taught in an engineering education,” says Skillman. “We worked with those on campus like Dr. Dan Dolan in the CAMP program and others to get students to grow as team players and leaders. We encouraged them to recognize and observe traits in themselves and others that lead to success."

Today, the university has developed the popular Shark Tank-style CEO Business Plan competition on campus. Top student teams are eligible for thousands of dollars in awards and a chance to attend the Governor’s Giant Vision Competition, which Mines students have won six years in a row. “It’s amazing how fast our students learn once you show them the basics of how to build a business model and how to pitch an idea. They really shine and make us all proud,” says Joseph Wright, associate vice president for economic development at Mines.

Great ideas abound, but a collaborative support system on campus and in the community is needed to nourish those ideas into actual businesses. Some found success despite the hurdles. Mike Boucher (MS CS 91) developed Dakota Scientific Software in the mid-1990’s at Mines. The company employed innovative algorithms that enabled supercomputers to undertake complex problem solving and analysis. He sold the business to Sun Microsystems, the first of two of his start-ups acquired by Fortune 500 companies. Boucher gives credit to then-President Richard Gowen for being a mentor and advocate. “It is easy to say we would not be here without him,” he says.

Gowen and Boucher worked with others to attract a grant from a local economic development authority to boost entrepreneurship at Mines. “But for the most part there was not a focus on entrepreneurship in Rapid City at the time,” says Boucher. “For example, it was hard to find an accounting firm that knew how to take advantage of the research and development tax credit, just to pick one concrete thing.” Boucher says an infrastructure to support people at each stage of business development is critical for creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem where innovation can flourish.

This type of support system is exactly what is being built in the Black Hills today. Boucher is a member of Mines’ Entrepreneur- In-Residence (EIR) Program that provides experienced mentors to university business startups. Mines is also working to support faculty innovation and research alongside a range of programs to encourage student innovation and entrepreneurship. “We’re fortunate that our faculty file three times more invention disclosures than the national average,” says Wright. He helped start a number of programs to boost tech transfer on campus including the EIR program and an annual conference that connects angel investors with university innovators. Mines is also working together with business and government leaders on many fronts. The new Office of Industry Engagement, led by Wright, is creating and maintaining partnerships with the local economic development authority, Elevate Rapid City and the Ascent Innovation Campus, along with Ellsworth Air Force Base, the Sanford Underground Research Facility, and a myriad of high-tech businesses and organizations in the region and around the world. 

Ecosystems are fragile things; they don’t evolve overnight and must be nurtured to thrive. They must be defended from internal and external threats. The ecosystem supporting the technology-based economic development in the Black Hills has some challenges to overcome and gaps to fill, but success stories are unfolding every day and there are many bright spots on the horizon.

“One of our biggest challenges now is to continue to grow our network. We have so many talented Mines alumni who can assist young entrepreneurs and start-up companies and we hope to see them come forward,” says Wright. Like all endeavors, a system supporting positive economic growth in the Black Hills will take ongoing cooperation and hard work. Fortunately, Hardrockers have great capacity for both.


About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu

Upcoming Events

Tuesday, Sep. 26, 2023
11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
King Center
Wednesday, Sep. 27, 2023
7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Campus Wide
Saturday, Sep. 30, 2023
7:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Stadium Parking Lot and Rocker Trails
Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023
7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Crazy Horse