South Dakota Mines and Wildfire Labs Collaborate to Create Innovation Ecosystem

June 27, 2024
South Dakota Mines and Wildfire Labs Collaborate to Create Innovation Ecosystem
Jared Tiefenthaler, (left), a project sponsor for Signed Up Sports, joins Mines students who helped build the software package for the start-up business, Khushi Patil, Prarthavi Patnekar, and Brian Pfeifle.

When Todd Gagne and his wife Holly graduated from South Dakota Mines in the '90s, both hoped to get jobs in the Black Hills.

That dream didn't happen.

Todd is now determined to change that for future generations.

“We are really trying to build this community in Rapid City where we keep entrepreneurs and Mines graduates here," Gagne said.

So far, it has been a success thanks in part to a collaboration with his alma mater.

Two years ago, Gagne, and Sioux Falls partner Mike Vetter started Wildfire Labs, an early-stage accelerator that helps entrepreneurs build and launch their software products and prepare to grow rapidly. “We are helping entrepreneurs transform their ideas into successful companies,” Gagne said. “You come in with a business idea, and in six months, we will get you from vision to value to revenue.”

A partnership with Brian Butterfield, a Mines lecturer in electrical engineering and computer science, and his senior capstone design program connects entrepreneurs with the fresh perspectives and innovative ideas of Mines students. Gagne brings together an entrepreneur with a team at Mines; they work on the idea for a few semesters while gaining real-world experience with the hope that one or two of the students will stay with the entrepreneur and build a business.

That is exactly what happened with Signed Up Sports, a new software package created by entrepreneur Jared Tiefenthaler that helps streamline sports camps, and CounSil, LLC, a startup founded by Mines graduate John Barbour, focused on creating a more efficient system of prioritizing needs and purchases for the military.

Both Tiefenthaler and Barbour are Wildfire Lab entrepreneurs who used Mines capstone design teams to develop their software.

Tiefenthaler said the partnerships helped his company tackle software development and created a talent pipeline.

"I have personally gained value in working with these students simply in the area of development. Learning the organization/structure that it takes to accomplish a project like this is invaluable," he said.

The software development was also valuable to Mines students. They gained experience in real-world applications, and one of the team members, Brian Pfeifle, gained a job. Pfeifle, a Mines computer science graduate, is now the software engineer for Signed Up Sports.

“The most inspiring thing that I find about this type of work is being able to take the skills that I have learned throughout my education and put them toward a real-world problem,” Pfeifle said. “I love the idea that the application we are developing now will be used in the future to make someone's life easier."

Barbour has worked closely with Ellsworth Air Force Base leadership, beginning while he was a Mines undergraduate, and is currently in the beta test phase of his software. “We have already demonstrated the application to them, and they have seen it and liked it,” he said. “The big vision is to eventually scale this across the DoD and not just the Air Force.”

Barbour said he would not be where he is today without the resources available through Wildfire Labs, Elevate Rapid City, and South Dakota Mines programs like Innovation Club, Entrepreneur in Residence, and the Hacking for Defense course run by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), as well as his Mines team of software developers.

“Without Mines leading to NSIN, we would never have had the opportunity to start the company,” Barbour said.

The collaboration kept both Pfeifle and Barbour in Rapid City and is attracting more entrepreneurs to the area.

“It worked out exactly as we thought,” Gagne said. “We are coaching new entrepreneurs while at the same time building an ecosystem in Rapid City that will keep Mines graduates from leaving the state and bringing in new talent because we need both.”