Daily Inter Lake: Western Montana designated as a regional technology hub

by Kate Heston

Western Montana is now a federally-designated technology and innovation hub.

The designation opens the door for federal funds that could enter the state to innovate and boost the area’s emerging technologies and economy. Across the country, 31 regions received the designation.

“This is really going to put Montana on the map,” said Todd O’Hair, the president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “The fact of the matter is that Montana is increasingly being recognized as a high tech or advanced technology sort of state. This is going to supercharge that recognition.”

The designation is a recognition of the region’s potential for growth and is the first phase of the novel Tech Hubs program through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

“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,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in a statement. 

Both Tester and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines pushed for the bipartisan designation at the federal level. 

The Headwaters Regional Technology and Innovation Hub designation, a consortium led by Accelerate Montana through the University of Montana, will assist the regions around Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell to develop and deploy smart photonic sensing systems to address critical defense and resource management. The consortium includes a mix of startups, engineers, industry leaders, government officials and academic partners, all focused on what excellence in quantum technologies in Montana could look like. 

“I think our focus is on protecting assets that exist in rural communities that are vital,” said Paul Gladen, director of Accelerate Montana. 

The designation encourages advancements into photonics, or the manipulation of light for data, and for sensors. Imagine an autonomous vehicle that can be deployed to fight wildfires, Gladen said, giving an example of the sort of technology that could come out of the designation. 

Another example, according to O’Hair, would be a tractor that could differentiate between crops and weeds when it sprays fertilizer or pesticide. 

“This is going to help move us into precision agriculture quicker and faster,” O’Hair said.

Local companies such as Applied Materials or RDO Equipment Co., are likely to be interested, O’Hair said. 

Out of around 400 applicants, Western Montana’s application, submitted by Accelerate Montana on behalf of the consortium, received the tech hub designation. It was also awarded the Tech Hubs Strategy Development Grant, which offers $500,000 to develop a plan for its Phase 2 application.

If the Montana tech hub is chosen for Phase 2, it will be awarded $45 million to complete technology projects. Only hubs that received the designation can apply for the funding in Phase 2 and not every hub that received a designation will receive Phase 2 funding.

“First of all, it’s the magnitude of the funding. $45 million is enough funding to actually do a lot of projects,” said Scott Whittenburg, president of Accelerate Montana. “There is potential for us to become a national or international player in some of the fields.”

The goals under the designation, according to Gladen, are employing artificial intelligence using machine learning, autonomy and related advances as well as natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation. According to O’Hair, other related industries include mining and national defense. 

“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,” said Daines in a statement regarding the designation.

Local officials were similarly supportive of the designation.

“This is a tremendous step forward for industries … it will allow us to be more efficient,” said state Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell.

Rep. Tony Brockman, R-Kalispell, called the news “exciting” and “another arrow Montana businesses and entrepreneurs have in their quiver to continue growing and stretching our economy locally and statewide.”

According to Whittenburg and Gladen, the hub eventually will boost the economy of Western Montana, bringing in more businesses and expanding the workforce, opening an opportunity to stimulate growth that could develop or use the technologies emerging from the grant. 

“What is good for Montana is good for all of us,” said state Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who is hoping that the benefits of the hub extend into Lincoln County. 

In the meantime, Accelerate Montana, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the consortium will be figuring out the group’s structure and governance moving forward as they complete the Phase 2 application and planning process. 

The application for Phase 2 is due in February 2024. 

The potential for Montana’s economy to create the kind of jobs that allow citizens to stay here to work is growing, O’Hair said. This designation could hopefully accelerate that, he said.