How innovation and startup center can help Northern State, Aberdeen –

While a majority of Americans live in rural communities, technology jobs are often focused in major metropolitan areas.
A new effort in Aberdeen is working to change that.
Northern State University and the Aberdeen Development Corp. announced their partnership with the Center on Rural Innovation in spring. The group is a nonprofit that partners with rural leaders across the country to build digital economies in rural America.
While basics have been released about the project, much of the information has been nebulous. Here’s what to expect on the Northern campus in the months to come.
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Through the partnership, Northern is creating an innovation and startup center, which will eventually be housed in new Lincoln Hall on campus. The university’s plans include tearing down Lincoln Hall and Briscoe Hall and constructing a new, more functional Lincoln Hall. The South Dakota Legislature approved $29.5 million for the project, using part of the state’s federal stimulus funding from the American Rescue Plan.
Most recently, Northern announced nearly $1.5 million in funding that will be used for programming. Half is from a Venture Challenge Grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build to Scale Program. The other half is coming from matching funds.
Blake Day, vice president of the Northern State University Foundation, said the foundation helped secure the cash and in-kind match needed for the most recent grant for programming.
“The foundation is here to support the university. For Aberdeen and the region to succeed, we need Northern to be successful,” he said.
Here’s what’s going to happen next.
The hiring process has begun to find a director for the innovation and startup center, which will initially be at the Beulah Williams Library on campus. This hire is expected to be in place in November.
As a person who is routinely visiting with others who have business ideas and those looking to set up shop in town, Aberdeen Development Corp. CEO Mike Bockorny said one of the most frequent questions he gets asked is where people can find resources for starting their business.
With the development of the innovation and startup center, he said, there will be a place tech start-up companies can tap for help.
The goal is to create a “tech economy ecosystem” that would essentially provide the connections needed to foster the development of such companies. That includes financing opportunities through angel investors, incubation spaces for businesses, entrepreneur support through mentorships and educational opportunities.
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“It’s designed to help rural communities be tech start-up communities,” said Erin Fouberg, Northern State associate vice president of academic affairs.
Hannah Walters, Northern State assistant professor of marketing, said the innovation and startup center will be for anyone who wants to learn about tech businesses or has a technology-related start-up business idea. Through the center, entrepreneurs will be partnered with mentors. Educational opportunities will also be available not only in person, but virtually.
That means significant broadband access, a factor that was a requirement to partner with the Center on Rural Innovation.
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While he heard about the center four years ago, Bockorny said, Aberdeen didn’t initially meet the program requirements because sufficient broadband infrastructure wasn’t available. But, the state’s recent investments to expand broadband changed that.
Creating an environment where tech jobs can grow and thrive isn’t a one-size fits all approach. Fouberg said that’s why it’s important to look at a community’s assets.
She said providing those virtual or hybrid flexible courses and having trained experts on campus to offer those courses are among the factors that set Aberdeen apart in its quest to create an environment for tech entrepreneurs. Other factors included the university’s tight relationship with the community and the community’s strong entrepreneurial history, she said
That spirit of innovation, Fouberg said, already exists. It started with the development of the flagship Super 8 Hotel in eastern Aberdeen, she said, and continued with the ancillary businesses to support it. For instance, a company to provide products for the hotel, another for embroidered uniforms and still another for printed materials. The result, she said, was the development of a hospitality industry.
In creating this digital ecosystem, Northern State’s goal for the innovation and startup center is to provide a support system for ideas that already exist.
“There’s little fires of innovation all over the community,” Fouberg said.
This will add a center with resources, support and connections, she said, and a network forms adding fuel for those innovation fires.
“Everything started with one fire and it spread,” Bockorny said, using fire as an analogy for an innovative idea. “This concept is designed to do the same thing.”
But, he said, development of the network will take time, which means he doesn’t expect tech businesses to start popping up right away.
“This is a long game,” he said. “This is going to take years. We want to make sure we do this the right way first rather than the right way three times over.”
What will happen, however, is that people with ideas will visit the center where they will get the support they need for their innovation. Then, Bockorny said, when that idea has become a business in need of its own space for, say, the production of a product, the Aberdeen Development Corp. can help with that. It is rehabilitating the former Hub City Transit building into a business innovation and technology center that will be different than what will be on the Northern campus.
With one building on site now, he said, he envisions the property with multiple buildings to allow for the growth of more than one tech company at any given time. And, he said, other spaces around town could be built to cater to different types of tech businesses since the needs for tech companies could be anything from manufacturing space for the creation of a product to office space for software development.
The business center is also expected to be a temporary space for businesses to grow before moving into a more permanent space, he said, anticipating companies staying anywhere from one to five years.
With technology and innovative ideas already out there, Bockorny said the goal is not only to foster growth and development of new business ideas, but also to create opportunities for businesses to relocate.
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Walters said the program could help with “scalable tech” ideas. Take a food truck that sells tacos. The owner might develop software that makes the business more efficient. That alone is an innovative idea, but it becomes scalable technology with the realization that this it can also help other food trucks.
The same could be said about a tech plan from a pitch idea contest at Northern State. Maybe a student wants to bring more international music to campus and wants to create a platform to access the music. That platform has revenue potential and then becomes scalable technology.
Fouberg said there’s a benefit to bringing this center to a rural area where tech ideas can be fostered and developed.
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“I think there’s great small towns,” she said, describing those rural communities as places with a pace of life people don’t get in those major metropolitan areas.
Having broadband connections, she said, means having the ability to start that tech startup and create a company with employees who could be anywhere.
Fouberg said her hope is that someone from a rural community can use Northern’s center to learn about marketing and coding and discover that entrepreneurial culture. With those tools, she said, that person can create a business with headquarters in their home community and the ability to connect to employees almost anywhere.
“I see it as a huge solution for small towns in the area,” she said.
While the development of this center is new, Bockorny said, it also fits with an economic development strategy he was tasked with crafting nine years ago when he was hired at the development corporation. At that time, he said, he was told to find ways to further diversify the economy.
“It literally took nine years to get to this point,” he said.
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While it’s hard to say how long it will take to see the development of new companies, Fouberg said, she hopes the organizers and groups involved can look back in 10 to 15 years and be blown away by the development and maybe even some businesses that exceed expectations.
Bockorny said tech ideas can come from anyone, but some folks might not have the marketing expertise or the connections needed for the idea to reach its full potential and it never grows into something more. That, he said, is where Northern’s center fits in because it allows for the incubation of those ideas and helps move it toward the development of a business.
While he doesn’t know what company or companies will develop from the new effort or when, Bockorny said he confident something will and when that happens, Aberdeen will look back in amazement.


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