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About eight years ago, two chemical engineering professors at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology's came up with an idea they believed could revolutionize the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.

Now, they are on cusp of seeing their vision become a reality.

Hao Fong and Todd Menkhaus, co-founders of Nanofiber Separations, have created what they call a hyper-efficient filtration system that uses nanofiber technology to clean drugs that are mass produced.

"This new filtration system will make it quicker, simpler and cheaper for pharmaceutical companies to remove toxins and impurities during the manufacturing process," Merkhaus explained.

The School of Mines has been a hotbed of scientific ideas and concepts for years, but during the past 12 months the school has focused on turning the best ideas into businesses that are commercially viable. 

Nanofiber Separations, which began operations in 2011, is one of those and has recently kicked its operations into overdrive.

Since the beginning of the year, the company has brought a new CEO on board, received a grant for almost $710,000 from the National Science Foundation and won the 2014 Governor's Giant Vision Business Award that included a $20,000 prize.

The additional money has enabled the company to fund its final prototype and get ready for production within a few weeks.

"Nanofiber Separations is a great representation of what happens when great ideas receive the capital to become commercially viable." said Craig Arnold, the company's new CEO.

A nanofiber is about 1,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair, said Merkhaus, while pointing out that if a fiber is 1,000 times smaller, it provides 1,000 times more surface area in the same volume.

Merkhaus compares their product to a coffee filter that separates impurities and additives while brewing coffee. The nanofiber filtration system, he said, works in a similar fashion but on a much greater scale.  

Merkhaus spent many years working for pharmaceutical companies where he developed contacts within the industry and learned the challenges of manufacturing medication, Arnold said.

His connections are the among the reasons the company has focused on the pharmaceutical industry, but the nanofiber filtration system could have applications for other industries, as well.

For example, the company is exploring the idea of promoting the filtration system for water-treatment facilities that could use it to create cleaner water with more efficiency.

In the meantime, the creators of Nanofiber Separations said several drug companies have expressed an interest in their new technology, Merkhaus said.

In addition, the new technology has a patent pending, which makes it more attractive to investors, Arnold said.

Arnold became an entrepreneur in residence at Mines in January, meaning he is a volunteer who helps the school start up companies. He has a lengthy resume that includes a four years as the CEO of Plymouth Energy and six years as director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The School of Mines, meanwhile, has played an important role in the company's development, Merkhaus said. Every employee at Nanofiber Separations is a professor who graduated from the school with a Ph.D. is or working toward it.

The Mines Foundation even owns a small stake of equity in the company, Merkhaus said.

All future research and development, as well as any manufacturing, will remain in Rapid City, Arnold said. With so many connections to the school and the state's business-friendly climate, he said there's no reason to consider going elsewhere.

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