Graduate student-run organization tackles biotech projects for businesses

May 24, 2018

This piece is presented by South Dakota Biotech.

A new nonprofit formed by graduate students is helping biotech companies afford needed services.

Dakota Research and Consulting Organization, or DRACO, was incorporated as a 501(c)3 in September 2017 and formed through a collaboration of graduate students from the biomedical engineering and computer science departments at the University of South Dakota and the biomedical engineering department at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Its goal is to provide cost-effective services to biotech companies, invest in the professional development of student consultants and educate about regional science initiatives and local biotech companies.

Chief operating officer Eric Sandhurst told us more about the growing organization.

For people who aren’t familiar with DRACO, how does it work? Who do you serve?

We anticipate that many of our clients will be university faculty, independent researchers or regional biotech companies that have a need they cannot meet on their own. Based on the skills of our founding members, student consultants and partnering organizations, we offer services such as grant and proposal writing, commercialization plans, market research and technology transfer. DRACO works with our industry clients to define a specific objective to complete within a six-week time frame. Based on the nature of each project, our executive board will solicit our consultants and assemble a team that can efficiently fulfill the client’s needs. We plan to have consultants from many different disciplines, such as biomedical engineering, business, law, physical therapy, life sciences, industrial design and many others.

Because we are a nonprofit organization, our cost point can be kept much lower than larger consulting firms. We charge a flat rate of $3,000 for each six-week project. Throughout the project timeline, we meet with the client and give appropriate updates and, in the the end, give them the predetermined deliverable. The money is invested back into our consultants in the form of portfolio development, leadership seminars and professional conferences. We strive to give our graduate student consultants a unique professional development experience that is complementary to their endeavors in the classroom and the laboratory.

What are some recent examples of consulting projects students have completed?

One exciting project we recently completed involved writing a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant application for a USD biomedical engineering professor. This prestigious grant is used to determine the commercialization readiness of the technology invented by this professor. We were happy to see this application approved and even happier when the professor asked DRACO to start another project managing the team who would be performing the customer discovery.

Another project that will be beginning soon involves assisting a professor in the physical therapy department at USD. He is interested in starting a company and working with manufacturers and distributors to sell a rehabilitation device he invented. These are examples of projects that excite DRACO because we love seeing the innovative technology developed at our universities transition into real entrepreneurial ventures.

Can businesses become involved with DRACO if they have projects? What types of projects are the right fit?

DRACO is always looking for new projects. Projects that have a specific and defined objective, which can be completed in six weeks, are the best fit. Since our consultants are graduate students who have other important obligations, we feel that limiting our projects to a defined time line will be beneficial for all parties. As we build up our roster of consultants, we will have multiple teams and projects running simultaneously. We welcome projects from entrepreneurs, established businesses and students.

There will be some South Dakota students attending the international BIO conference in June. What will they be doing, and what do you hope they take away from it?

While we will not have any members of DRACO at BIO international, two graduate students who were selected as the entrepreneurial leads on the I-Corps project will be attending the conference and conducting interviews and completing customer discovery initiatives. We hope to further build on the momentum surrounding the South Dakota biotech sector.

Do many of your students remain in South Dakota after working with DRACO? What kind of industry opportunities are they finding?

As we are just getting started, we do not have too many alumni, but our current members have used their experiences as DRACO members to build meaningful business relationships and develop their professional skills. We hope the relationships that are established between our consultants and our clients will lead to employment opportunities. Not only are we providing needed services to local startups and entrepreneurs, but we are helping connect these companies to the future workforce that wants to see this industry grow in South Dakota as much as they do.

If students or businesses would like to find out more about DRACO, what should they do?

We hope to continually recruit students who have an entrepreneurial spirit, the drive to learn interdisciplinary skills and a desire to broaden their perspective of the growing biotech sector in our region.

Students interested in becoming consultants and clients interested in learning more about DRACO’s services can visit our website,, and use the contact link. They can also email us at or find us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. We are also finalizing our contract with the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship, and we are looking to move into an office space in June 2018.

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Graduate student-run organization tackles biotech projects for businesses

A new nonprofit formed by graduate students is helping biotech companies afford needed services.

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