Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Power of Water Cooler Moments: A Story of Success at South Dakota Mines

It’s not just about fostering random in-person connections; it’s about creating the kind of space where safe and informal conversations can turn into idea generating dialogue.

 

In the right environment, chance encounters in the workplace can yield brilliant innovation.

On a cold afternoon in the fall of 2005, Todd Menkhaus, Ph.D., was learning the ropes during his first week on the job. The young assistant professor of chemical engineering at South Dakota Mines was climbing the stairs towards his new office when he came across Hao Fong, Ph.D.

“He was going one way and I was going the other,” Menkhaus says. “He stopped me and said, ‘Oh are you new to campus?’”

The normal small talk that ensues when two new colleagues first meet quickly turned into a discussion on each other’s specialties. Menkhaus came from the pharmaceutical industry with an expertise in the complex manufacturing of anti-cancer drugs. Fong was pioneering research on a new type of filter, made of thousands of tiny randomly crossing nanofibers where each individual fiber is many times smaller than a human hair.

The pair of researchers began to connect dots. The chance encounter in the hallway turned into an intense discussion that lasted a few hours. “When I started thinking about all the things you could do with Fong’s nanofibers, I realized they could be used to solve a lot of problems I had been working on in the pharmaceutical industry over the previous five years. I had the problem, and he had the solution,” says Menkhaus.

That single encounter opened the door to a 15-year collaboration that resulted in a revolutionary new type of filter, which significantly reduces the cost and manufacturing time for lifesaving vaccines and medicines. The pair of professors turned their idea into a start-up company. In 2020, that startup, Nanopareil, was acquired by Gamma Biosciences, a subsidiary of the global investment firm KKR.

It’s a wild success story that may have never happened in the world of remote work. “If we were relying on Zoom you would never go through the university directory and just randomly find someone to connect with and say, ‘Oh are you new to campus?’” Menkhaus says.

But it’s not just about fostering random in-person connections; it’s about creating the kind of space where safe and informal conversations can turn into idea generating dialogue.

“There is just no substitute for this kind of interaction,” says Mike Boucher who finished his master’s degree in computer science at Mines in 1991. Today, Boucher is a co-operator of Boulder New Tech in Boulder, Colo. “If you have a chance to design your office space, make sure you dedicate an open floor plan with break rooms or coffee stations that are welcoming and comfortable spaces that can spur these types of conversations.” Boucher, who is an Entrepreneur in Residence at South Dakota Mines, has seen the power of random office connections create solutions time and time again in his career. Today he is working on his third tech company start-up, Scripta LLC. His first two start-ups, Dakota Legal Software and Dakota Scientific Software, were acquired by Fortune 500 companies. In the late 1990’s, Boucher spent time at Sun Microsystems as a software engineer. He says his time at Sun also taught him the importance of one more addition to every break room: a whiteboard.

“If you put three or four whiteboards in your break room, what people will do is go to have coffee or lunch and then get to talking. The problems they are working on will naturally end up on the whiteboard. What this does is advertise to everyone in the building what they are working on. And that invites and fosters collaboration and new ideas,” says Boucher. “Someone else will see the whiteboard and add in their own notes or solutions. And later when another person comes up with the same problem, they will remember, ‘Hey I saw this person doodle about this on the whiteboard so I can go to them for help,’” says Boucher.

Today, Menkhaus is continuing to lead research at his company, Nanopareil, and he is creating the space where ideas can flourish. “You can’t always plan how success will happen. But you can create an environment and culture where teams of people can come together and solve really difficult problems based on their combined expertise,” he says. “The work that we do, it’s very hands-on laboratory work and just being able to have scientists working together and talking together all the time has brought so many ideas that would not have evolved in another environment.”

At South Dakota Mines, students are encouraged to innovate from day one. The 2021 fall semester will include a full array of student organizations and activities. This means classes that incorporate science and engineering teams who are tasked to tackle problems with in-person hands- on collaboration and cooperation. Mines programs like Center of Excellence for Advanced Multidisciplinary Projects (CAMP) gives student teams hands-on engineering experience. CAMP actively encourages participation, personal growth, emotional intelligence, organization, and leadership starting in the freshmen year.

###

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 2,418 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 97 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $66,150. For these reasons College Factual ranks South Dakota Mines, the #1 Engineering School 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