Billings Gazette: Laser tech, robotic vehicles, drive Montana “tech hub”

by Tom Lutey

Bozeman’s niche laser industry will anchor a federally funded Western Montana technology hub.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has announced the Western Montana selection as one of 31 hubs designated to advance next-generation electronics research and manufacturing. Congress approved the hubs in 2022 as part of a $52-billion plan to wean the United States from foreign-built semiconductors and related technology.

“As a country, we used to invest 2% of our gross domestic product in research and development. Now it’s 0.7%. How can you lead the world when you’re no longer leading research and development?” President Joe Biden said during a Monday press briefing on the hubs.

Each hub can qualify for up to $75 million in federal aid to scale up production.

There are three dozen photonics companies in Montana, mostly located in the Bozeman area. Commerce specifically mentions Montana’s leveraging of a cluster of photonics companies to integrate remote sensing systems with embedded processors and built-in artificial intelligence with machine learning capabilities. The end goal is developing smart photonic sensing coupled with autonomous systems to address critical defense, resource management and disaster prevention. Hubs in Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Massachusetts were selected for similar things.

The state of Montana’s hub proposal specifically names corporate collaborators that either focus on robotics or laser optics. Hyundai America Technical, which opened a Bozeman campus in 2022, makes robotic wheeled and legged “ultimate mobility vehicles” and is a partner.

Bridger Photonics specializes in LiDAR, which uses laser pulses capable of seeing things the human eye cannot, like methane gas emissions.

More broadly, the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance is a partner.

Bozeman began attracting laser optics companies more than 30 years ago. As Lee Montana has previously reported, those first manufacturers coupled with a focus on photonics at Montana State University, lead to a niche workforce and more companies relocating to the area. Eventually, MSU graduates began opening businesses, as well, some developing technology transferred from the military via MilTech, a tech transfer partnership between Montana State University and the Department of Defense.

The Montana University System is a contributor. The Montana Tech Underground Mine Education Center, with 50 acres of rugged terrain, is listed as a testing ground, as is the University of Montana’s 21,000-acre Lubrecht Experimental Forest.

The expectation is that Montana State University, Montana Tech, the University of Montana and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai College will create two-year and four-year programs that feed into the manufacturing and design of smart photonic sensors.

The announcement of the hub triggered a raft of press releases from politicians and business leaders praising the selection, but offering scant information about the hub’s work, which is expected to involve Kalispell, Missoula, Butte, and Bozeman.

“Innovation can happen in any corner of America, which is why I’ve led the push to bring a Regional Tech Hub to Montana,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. “Today’s designation affirms what Montanans across our state already know to be true: there is untapped potential in rural America, and the Treasure State is ready to lead the nation in strengthening American security through domestic manufacturing and innovation. I’m proud to have led the charge to secure this competitive designation that will unlock new private and federal investments to turbocharge Montana’s economy, small businesses, and academic institutions.”

The potential for autonomous vehicles in agriculture and defense presents far-reaching applications for the hub’s work, Alison Harmon, Vice President of Research & Economic Development at Montana State University.

Both Tester, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Steve Daines mentioned roles in the Congressional work on tech hubs. Tester said he made sure that rural areas were eligible for tech hub consideration. Daines said he played a role in writing tech hubs into the Endless Frontier Act, a 2021 bill eventually folded into the CHIPS Act, or Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors Act, passed in 2022.

The CHIPS and Science Act was one of the few major spending bills that both Montana’s senators voted for. The vote on the $280 billion high-tech manufacturing and research bill came as the United States struggled with COVID-19 related manufacturing problems, particularly for semiconductors, which are mostly foreign made. Worries about strained trade politics with China, a major chips manufacturer fueled the demand for domestic semiconductor manufacturing.