August 25, 2021
Written By: Michelle Pawelski
Early in the 2000s, community leaders realized the need for a collaborative workspace for young entrepreneurs that would not only help them grow their business but also promote Rapid City as a regional leader in innovation, technology, and diversity. In response to that need, Rapid City launched the Black Hills Business Development Center in 2006. Located on the campus of South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, the business incubator provided cost-effective office space, mentoring, resources, and a platform for growth.
The incubator, renamed Ascent Innovation, was an immediate success, housing more than 30 companies and creating hundreds of new jobs throughout the years. With the incubator at maximum capacity and entrepreneurs waiting to secure a spot, talks started on the need for a second building. “We’ve been maxed out over there for several years,” explained Mitch Nachtigall, Ecosystem Development Director with Elevate Rapid City. “It definitely was something where we needed more space to foster that start-up community.”
In late 2017, after unanimous approval from the Rapid City Council, work began on a location and design of the new Ascent Innovation Campus. “The top criteria was to stay downtown and to stay in close proximity to the School of Mines,” Nachtigall said. The 4.3-acre lot on East Main Street provided an ideal location connecting the University to downtown, students with industry, and creating a corridor of innovation. “This expansion shows downtown is the place to be in Rapid City,” said Tom Johnson, President and CEO of Elevate. “Downtowns are the heartbeat of any community, so this facility is part of the community’s long-term revitalization strategy for downtown. When people come to downtown now, they won’t just do so because they are tourists, but because they are creating companies.”
City officials broke ground on Oct. 9, 2019, declaring Oct. 9 Innovation Day, and work began on a 40,000-square-foot iconic building. During the same time, the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce and economic development organizations merged to form Elevate Rapid City. With a unified voice and mission, the organization works to lead the economic development and small business efforts of the region. The team moved into the building in March 2021, making them the first tenants to occupy the new building. “This facility’s expansion is a big part of Elevate’s strategic plan,” Johnson said. “So often, business attraction gets all the headlines, but with Rapid City being an amenity-driven area, entrepreneurship is a big part of our foundation. Quality of life attracts entrepreneurs. This provides a state-of-the-art facility to help them grow.”
The new building, which opened its doors in March, includes 25,000 square feet of flexible tenant space and administrative offices along with spaces for meetings, events, and collaboration – all with a goal of bringing the community together. Aside from Elevate Rapid City, current tenants include the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority; however, Nachtigall said 90 percent of the building is committed to tenants with design and construction continuing on those spaces.
He said they are excited to continue the longstanding reputation of mentoring young, successful companies who make an impact on the community. Several graduates of the incubator are now national and global companies with their headquarters remaining in Rapid City. While the incubator initially focused on start-up companies, it began to expand its tenants to include satellite and now even has some second-generation companies. “These are startups that grew up and graduated and now have a spin off company,” Nachtigall said. Black Hills Information Security, a cybersecurity company specializing in penetration testing, red teaming, and threat hunting, will have its spin-off business in the new building.
Other graduates include 7400 Circuits, Property Meld, who are building a new corporate headquarters in Rapid City, VRC Metal Systems, and B9Creations, a global 3D manufacturer. B9Creations moved into the incubator in 2014. Its founder Michael Joyce, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base and fell in love with the area. After retiring, he moved back bringing with him his passion for technology and desire to start his own company. Joyce started in the incubator with three employees. The company, located off Deadwood Ave., now has 40 employees, and ships its products to 70 different countries, said CEO Shon Anderson. “We had a place that gave us flexibility to grow, ready access to interns at the School of Mines, which was a tremendous advantage, plugged us in to what is now Elevate, and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development – those combinations were a tailwind to our growth,” Anderson said.
Elevate’s goal is to begin recruiting companies and talent that have connections to the area whether they are former graduates or people like Joyce who spent time in the Black Hills and want to return. Founders of 7400 Circuits and Property Meld graduated from the School of Mines and found jobs outside the area. “They wanted to be in Rapid so much that they came back and started their own companies.” Nachtigall said. “We are working that angle hard. We want people to come back, look at the facilities we have; look at this great entity of Elevate Rapid City and everything it is doing.”
Officials hope the new incubator will be a catalyst for continued innovation and growth in Rapid City and set the stage for a future with diverse tech and manufacturing jobs, higher wages and a progressive business climate that leaves a lasting impact on Western South Dakota. “Rapid is going to grow by about 30,000 in the next 10 years,” Johnson said. “The Ascent Innovation Campus and this center will provide space and services for the next generation of entrepreneurs in the Black Hills.”
An official grand opening and ribbon cutting is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 12 at the monthly Elevate Networking Mixer.