Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Montana receives federal tech hub designation, money to advance photonics industry

by Isabel Hicks

Montana is set to receive $450,000 and the opportunity to compete for millions in private and federal grants after receiving the federal designation of Regional Tech Hub.

Designation of the Montana Headwaters Regional Technology and Innovation Hub will focus on supporting workforce development and jobs in the photonics, optics and autonomous systems industries. The technologies are important for natural resource management, agriculture, disaster prevention applications and defense.

The hub designation comes as part of the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act that Congress passed last year to invest in high-tech jobs and research across the country. The Montana hub is one of 31 tech hub designations awarded to states and regions across the county.

The $450,000 will go to Accelerate Montana, an economic development consortium based in Missoula, to help plan the hub’s launch and figure out funding opportunities for Montana.

Being designated as a tech hub opens the doors for phase two funding through the CHIPS and Science Act, which Montana plans to apply for in February 2024, said Accelerate Montana Director Paul Gladen in an interview Tuesday.

If successful, Montana could be awarded between $40 to $70 million to fund projects related to supporting existing tech companies in the photonics, optics and automation fields, and also creating new companies, Gladen said.

Ultimately, the award could create thousands of new jobs for Montanans, he added.

Jason Yager, president of Montana Photonics and Quantum Alliance said in a press release the “once-in-a-lifetime” designation would “exponentially increase” industry growth. Bridger Photonics’ CEO also added the hub will allow the company to “leverage our potential to the fullest.”

Joe Shaw, engineering professor and director of the Optical Technology Center at Montana State University, said in a Tuesday interview that tech companies here have a need for well-trained employees who can design and manufacture lasers and optical sensors for products like automated drones and self-driving cars.

Ultimately, Shaw wants MSU to create an undergraduate major in engineering for photonic systems in order to train students for local jobs in the rapidly-expanding tech field. If awarded, the phase two money could help develop that.

Right now, the bulk of that training happens at the graduate level, and undergraduate students interested in those fields can major in physics or electrical engineering and pursue a minor in optics and photonics systems.

“This would be an industry-requested degree program that would help fill in some of the gaps,” Shaw said.

Shaw highlighted the growing need for such technologies like lidar, hyperspectral imaging, and autonomous systems, which are being increasingly used in Montana for things like monitoring crop fields with drones, creating self-driving cars and tractors, and using drones to map forest quality and optimal locations for prescribed burns to reduce wildfire risk.

Montana’s representatives, universities, tech companies and Chamber of Commerce all celebrated the designation awarded on Monday, saying it will be a huge boost to cutting-edge workforce development and technology design across the state.

“This designation for a technology hub in Montana gives us another opportunity to punch above our weight for our national competitiveness and securing our supply chains for technological innovations. Industries such as mining, agriculture, construction, and infrastructure development, will greatly benefit from this program,” said Montana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd O’Hair in a press release.

In 2021, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) sponsored an amendment to the CHIPS and Science Act to ensure some of the funding would go to rural areas. The senator then pushed for specifically Montana to be one of the rural awardees through writing letters to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and hosting a roundtable in Missoula this February to garner support for the hub.

“Today’s designation affirms what Montanans across our state already know to be true: there is untapped potential in rural America,” Tester said in a release. “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.”

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who co-sponsored the CHIPs and Science Act, also hailed the tech hub designation as a victory for Montana’s economy.

“Today’s announcement is another milestone for Montana, speaks volumes about the quality of our workforce and further solidifies our standing as a leading hub for cutting edge technology and research in the country,” Daines said in a release.

Gov. Gianforte also applauded the hub designation, writing in a release that “thanks to our pro-business policies and the unparalleled work ethic of Montanans, Montana is a growing hub for innovative, job-creating businesses in photonics, optics, and quantum.”