FEATURE STORY: Finding Opportunity in South Dakota Leads to Finding Reasons to Live in South Dakota
From time to time, it does us some good to step out from behind the desk and out into the field where the real economic development action happens. That’s exactly where I found myself earlier this year when I headed west for a few days to visit some of our most innovative companies and local economic development corporations.
As part of my road trip, I stopped in to three Rapid City-based companies: Magnum Rubber Band Guns, VRC Metal Systems and B9 Creations. VRC and B9 currently work out of the Black Hills Business Development Center, an incubator owned by the Rapid City Economic Development Foundation, located on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology . Both companies are incredibly unique and have an interesting story to tell.
But what I found most interesting was a unique connection: the three men who started their respective companies were all former pilots for the United States Air Force. Two were even stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder for a time. And even more unique, all three not only found a reason to come to South Dakota, they eventually discovered an even bigger reason to stay.
Dan Smith, owner and president of Magnum Enterprises, was born and raised in southern California and lived there until 2004, when he moved to South Dakota. He served in the Air Force for eight years and served another seven in the Air Force Reserve.
“Our company has grown to four times the size since moving to South Dakota,” Smith said. “The people were always in a hurry where we came from. The smog, the traffic, the daily commute—two hours one way—we needed a change of scenery. We noticed almost immediately that the move to South Dakota was a good one. Not only is the business climate here much more reasonable than California, the people here are kinder. Health, business and auto insurance is more affordable. And corporation fees are cheaper.
“There’s no place like America to run your business and in South Dakota, it’s even easier to do so,” Smith added. “But not only are we able to operate a successful business here, we’re able to have a life here.”
Retired Air Force pilot Mike Joyce, CEO of B9 Creations, a 3D printing company, spent some time during the course of his career stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Mike and his wife loved South Dakota so much, that upon retiring from the Air Force they decided to stay and raise their family in the Black Hills.
“Mike’s passion and background in the aerospace industry eventually led to his interest in 3D printing, specifically what 3D printing could do for manufacturers and developers of large aircrafts,” said Shon Anderson, vice president of B9. “But the 3D printers available at the time were not a quality product and were expensive. So Mike and his son sat down in their garage one day and built their own.”
After two successful crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter that raised more than $500,000, things moved pretty quickly. B9 brought on Anderson as company vice president, hired Scott Reisenauer as chief operating officer, and even hired two interns.
“To call South Dakota home is a blessing,” Reisenauer said. “We’re very lucky to do business here.”
My final visit was with Rob Hrabe, president of VRC Metal Systems, a cold spray technology and advanced automation equipment manufacturer and commercialization partner based in Rapid City.
After falling in love with the Rapid City area and the Black Hills while flying B-1s at Ellsworth, Hrabe jumped at the chance to put roots down when an opportunity at the South Dakota School of Mines (SDSM&T) presented itself. An Aging Aircraft Repair Feasibility Study (AARFS) involving Ellsworth was being conducted at the request of South Dakota Sen. John Thune, and Hrabe knew his background in overhaul, repair and maintenance engineering would give him a leg-up.
“Since there weren’t many defense companies in Rapid City and there was fertile ground for transition of new technology out of SDSM&T, I decided to start my own company and see if I could use my experience and contacts to help fill the need for improved repair capabilities and cost savings within the Department of Defense,” Hrabe said. “With the help of Dr. Christian Widener from the Advanced Materials Processing Lab at SDSM&T, this ultimately evolved into the startup of VRC Metal Systems, which focuses on the cold spray technology which was part of the original AARFS study.”
Hrabe added that South Dakota is a great place to start a technology-related business.
“With the technology and innovations that are generated from SDSM&T, and support from the congressional delegation, state and local leadership, there are abundant opportunities for collaboration with some of the most talented people in the industry,” Hrabe said. “Having the opportunity to pitch your ideas to people who will listen and who are in a position to help you get started is a big deal.”
VRC Metal Systems recently tied for first place in the Governor’s Giant Vision Business Competition.