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Missoula, Bozeman to spearhead new Montana ‘tech hub’

Sen. Jon Tester expressed confidence that UM and MSU will collaborate to capitalize off the new opportunities that come with the Tech Hub designation.
Tech Lab
Posted at 4:12 PM, Oct 27, 2023

MISSOULA — Montana's recognition as a Tech Hub by the Economic Development Administration this month will bring new investment and jobs to the state, and could land millions of additional dollars in federal funding, backers said.

The Headwaters Regional Technology and Innovation Hub represents a consortium of Montana stakeholders led by Accelerate Montana at the University of Montana. The group organized, lobbied and secured Tech Hub recognition last week from the EDA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Scott Whittenburg, vice president of research and creative scholarship at UM, said Tech Hub recognition will support two key pursuits in Montana, including autonomous systems — like machine learning — and responding to and mitigating natural and man-made disasters.

A number of technology companies in Bozeman have already made “tremendous advances” in photonics, Whittenburg said. Coupled with resource management programs at UM, the Headwaters Regional Technology and Innovation Hub could help “supercharge the region” into a global leader of smart, autonomous and remote sensing technologies.

“Photonics devices are essential to autonomous systems and instruments such as lidar, that are required to prevent and mitigate natural disasters like fire, flood and drought,” Whittenburg said. “These awards will help propel Montana photonics to international prominence and strengthen the region’s leadership in management of natural resources.”

Eric Smith, who heads the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the U.S Economic Development Administration, described the program as a tool to invest in the creation of American technology and the jobs that come with it.

The program has earmarked $11.2 billion for research and development in next-generation energy technologies. That includes $800 million for renewable energy, $1 billion for advanced manufacturing, $1 billion to modernize the electrical grid, and $600 million for research on energy storage.

Whittenburg said the program will also benefit from UM's own expertise in forestry and rangeland technologies. But really, he added, the project involves a statewide consortium that includes the Montana University System, tribal colleges, the Department of Commerce and venture capital firms, among others.

“The consortium is also receiving assistance from Sen. Jon Tester’s office and America Achieves,” Whittenburg said.

Getting this far

Tester led a panel discussion in Missoula earlier this year where participants began planning their approach to compete for one of the 30 new Tech Hubs. The effort panned out and Montana was selected from a field of 200 applicants.

“We formed a successful application group named Headwaters Tech Hub Consortium,” Tester said. “When the time came, we leaned hard on the administration and encouraged them to look closely at the good work being done in Big Sky Country.”

Already, Montana is home to more than three dozen companies focused on photonics. Together, they employ more than 1,000 people with jobs that pay more than the state average.

Nationally, Montana ranks sixth in growth of its labor force growth, and Headwaters believes the photonics and manufacturing industries could add 5,000 new jobs, contributing more than $300 million in total wages to the economy.

In its application, the Headwaters group said “Western Montana seeks to develop and deploy smart photonic sensing systems, coupled with autonomous systems, to address critical defense, resource management, and disaster prevention needs."

Building on that, Tester said the Tech Hub designation will also open the door for Montana to compete for millions of dollars in private investment and federal funding. That too could have far-reaching benefits.

“Securing a tech hub means significantly increasing research and development dollars for our businesses and university, boosting manufacturing capacity and creating good-paying jobs across Montana,” Tester told the Missoula Current.

“They'll be focused on smart optical sensors, which is something the military can use, self-driving cars can use, and something security can use,” he added. “They'll use that money to bring in more partners to make this a more robust partnership.”

The designation marks the first phase of the Tech Hub program, which was authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act, which Tester helped craft. The program will invest directly into “high-potential regions” like Montana, and work to transform them into globally competitive innovation centers.

The first round of designations is an endorsement of Montana's technological industry, Tester said. Along with the 29 other Tech Hubs, the Headwaters group is now eligible to apply for the next phase of the program, which would invest between $50 million and $75 million into five to 10 regional hubs.

“It means we're going to be on the cutting edge of innovation globally,” Tester said. “Montana will be directly open to compete with China, and we'll be creating technology that strengthens our national defense capabilities with laser and photonics technology.”

Tester expressed confidence that the University of Montana and Montana State University will collaborate to capitalize off the new opportunities that come with the Tech Hub designation.

“MSU and UM know they both can benefit from this in a big way. Working together is the only way to get this done,” Tester said. “The two presidents of the universities are good people and they understand it, and they'll lead those universities down the proper path.”