MISSOULA – Looking to build on Missoula’s reputation as a community that fosters innovative thinkers, the University of Montana and its Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC) are creating an innovation corridor along the Clark Fork River to support startup ventures in biosciences and other technical industries from across the state.

In August, the MonTEC business incubator issued a request for proposals seeking developers with the vision, funding and expertise to undertake construction of new facilities on the Missoula College and MonTEC campuses, which will become the Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway.

Once completed, these facilities will not only provide critically needed expansion space for MonTEC, but also the highly technical infrastructure needed by startups working in pharma and other bioscience industries.

Brigitta Miranda-Freer, who oversees MonTEC operations and serves as executive director of the Montana World Trade Center, said the 10-acre corridor ultimately will house best-in-class businesses, from startups to Fortune 100 firms. It also will build on the wealth of existing assets – what she calls the “secret sauce” – already provided to Montana businesses by UM and MonTEC.

“The Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway will definitely help meet critical infrastructure needs for our rapidly growing bioscience startups,” she said, “but it’s more than being a roof overhead. It’s an extension of team that can help researchers and other fledgling founders navigate the complexities of a startup – ­evaluating global market opportunity, securing funding, making connections with peers and established businesses – even being able to access UM resources like highly technical lab equipment or nationally recognized subject matter experts will give Montana Innovation Corridor firms the footing they need to succeed.”

This extended team includes a continuum of support offered by UM’s Accelerate Montana, a coalition of programs that serves businesses at all stages of growth – from idea generation to global expansion. Each year, Accelerate Montana reaches about 700 business and entrepreneurs while helping to bring in tens of millions of dollars in investment capital, grants and contracts to Montana.

“Accelerate Montana is quickly emerging as our state’s entrepreneurship and business development engine,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “UM’s ability to adapt, innovate and replicate to meet Montana’s pressing workforce needs is rooted in Accelerate Montana. In the years ahead, the Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway will serve as the model for university-led public/private partnership development.”

UM Research Professor Jay Evans, president of Inimmune, a biotechnology startup housed in MonTEC which was recently recognized as Montana Ambassadors Business of the Year, said Missoula is the perfect location for the planned Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway. With its location centered among UM, Great Falls’ McLaughlin Research Institute, Montana State University and Hamilton’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory, the corridor will help expand the growing biotech and high-tech industries across Montana.

“The past five years have seen rapid growth of the biotech sector in Missoula with 100% of the available laboratory space fully occupied,” Evans said, noting that two new venture capital firms, Next Frontier and Two Bear Capital, are helping to pour millions of out-of-state equity finance dollars into Montana companies.

“These expanding resources and focus on translational research have increased the need for more biotech incubator space in Missoula,” said Evans, whose Center for Translation Medicine at UM has itself received over $100 million in new federal grants and contract funding during the past four years.

Former UM Academic Information Technology Director Ryan Alter started his fledgling IT network company Alter Enterprise in a single office at MonTEC. It has since grown to become a 15-person firm providing IT services and support to businesses across the U.S. and has added a rapidly growing audio-visual sister company. Alter Enterprise currently supports about 100 companies and over 1,000 users, including the MonTEC building’s technology network.

Alter said the proximity to Missoula College led to a valuable synergy between the school and his company that might not have happened had he started his company somewhere else. Alter has taught classes at the college, participated in community events and exchanged ideas with Missoula College Dean Tom Gallagher and other faculty. The college also has provided a deep pool of talent for his company, as Alter Enterprise works with the college to offer internships and a popular IT apprenticeship program.

“We believe strongly in internships and are excited for our first apprentice to have successfully completed his program,” Alter said. “We are committed to providing entry-level opportunities for future technicians. In fact, in my A/V department, Silver Stream Audio Visual, every staff member was an intern from Missoula College.”

Later this fall, a community advisory team will evaluate proposals from developers and recommend a final candidate for moving forward, said Miranda-Freer. The developer ultimately selected for the project will own and operate the facility under a land-lease agreement.

While this new innovation gateway will do much to support existing technology startups at MonTEC and invite new players to follow their entrepreneurial dream, the impact of “increasing the size of the front-end funnel,” as Miranda-Freer puts it, will ripple out far from the banks of the Clark Fork River.

“This will create a catalytic culture for growth that we think will bring jobs, capital investment and an important pathway to long-term sustainability for UM’s ongoing economic development initiatives,” she said. “That’s not only good for Missoula, that’s good for the state of Montana. And considering what some existing firms are working on, particularly on the bioscience front, that’s good for the nation and the world.”

- by UM News Service -