Tester jobs forum focuses on role of universities, federally funded research

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Carly Flandro

Universities and research play a key role in creating new businesses, but challenges remain in turning new technology into jobs, panelists told Sen. Jon Tester on Friday.

Researchers, small business owners and community leaders came together to talk to Tester about the role universities and federally funded research play in boosting the local economy.

Three discussion panels were part of a jobs forum held at Montana State University’s Strand Union Building.

Joseph Shaw, director and professor at MSU’s Optical Technology Center, told Tester how the university has helped create and sustain a “rapidly growing cluster” of local optics-related companies.

In 1980, the first optical company of its kind opened in Bozeman, Shaw said at the first panel.

2000, there were 14 companies, and by 2010, there were 32 – at least 24 of which are still operating here. Past MSU students have started or are employed at a number of those companies, and some companies are located in Bozeman for the proximity to MSU labs, professors and students.

“We have a rapidly growing reputation worldwide,” Shaw said, recounting that when he came to the university 10 years ago, most in the optics field hadn’t heard of Bozeman. Now, they make comments about the boom of companies here.

“Graduates used to have to leave the state for jobs,” Shaw said. “Now many are hired by local companies.”

Joe Fanguay, director of the University of Montana’s Office of Technology Transfer, said research creates companies and provides opportunities for students. He gave the example of Rivertop Renewables, a Missoula company that creates green chemicals and products that are biodegradable and built from renewable plant sugars.

Several graduate students have become full-time employees there, he said.

But there are also challenges in commercializing new technology and turning research into jobs, the panelists said.

Dave Poulson of UM’s Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience said funding and research tax credits are critical pieces in building a company. He urged that they continue to be available. He also noted the importance of university research.

“I’ve come to understand that with the role of universities in knowledge-based economies, universities – in particular research universities – play a critical key role,” he said.

Two other panels held Friday focused on federally funded research and capital formation and on Montana success stories. Bozeman-based businessmen speaking at those panels included Will Sweringen, executive director of TechLink Center, John O’Donnell, a partner at Montlake Capital and founder of TechRanch, and Pete Roos, CEO of Bridger Photonics.