Missoulian: Montana officials giddy over state’s selection as ‘tech hub’

by David Erickson

The details about actual long-term economic benefits that may come to pass are a bit vague, but the top elected officials in Montana are touting Monday’s announcement that the state has been selected as a “regional tech hub” by the federal Economic Development Administration.

Federal officials say that what will be known as the Headwaters Hub will make Montana eligible to compete for a share of $500 million worth of federal funds in order to become a “global leader in smart, autonomous, photonic remote sensing technologies.”

Bozeman and Montana State University appear poised to have a jumpstart on qualifying for the funding, as there are several photonics companies in that area. However, the tech hub will be led by Accelerate Montana, which is based on the University of Montana campus in Missoula.

Montana was awarded $450,000 in strategy development funding for immediate use, but the real question about how big of a deal this is for Montana remains to be seen. But Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte all released statements about the project.

Tester’s staff said that as the only member of the Montana delegation to serve on the Senate Commerce Committee, he secured an amendment in the CHIPS and Science Act that means rural places in America could benefit from the funding.

“Innovation can happen in any corner of America, which is why I’ve led the push to bring a Regional Tech Hub to Montana,” Tester said in a statement. “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.”

Daines said the designation will help Montana’s technology sector, help the U.S. “win the race against China” and create good-paying jobs.

“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 statement. “From optics and photonics to quantum computing, I am grateful to help advance Montana’s ability to contribute even further to the important research and development that will help strengthen our national security and help us stay competitive against China.”

The Montana Department of Commerce partnered with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and other industry and state leaders to develop and submit the proposal on behalf of the state of Montana.

“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,” Gianforte said.

Accelerate Montana operates a variety of programs across the state from its base in Missoula. Seth Bodnar, president of the University of Montana, lauded the news.

“In Montana, our ability to adapt, innovate, and educate makes us uniquely positioned to house a tech hub,” Bodnar said. “With UM’s record research growth and Accelerate Montana’s innovative programs for workforce development in a rural setting, we are as prepared as any place in the U.S. to conduct the research, development, and manufacturing needed to ensure international dominance in the critical technology fields in our proposal. Sen. Tester and his relentless push to deliver a tech hub to our state will bring tremendous opportunities for Montanans for years to come.”

According to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the goal of the program is to diversify the country so that tech hubs develop outside of the traditional places like Silicon Valley, Seattle and Boston.

According to officials in the administration of President Joe Biden, the CHIPS and Science Act is meant to spur the development of industries so that America can produce microchips and semiconductors rather than relying on foreign countries for those crucial products.

Business officials in Montana could barely contain their excitement at the news.

“The gravity of this federal announcement officially designating Montana’s Headwaters Technology Hub cannot be understated,” said Nancy Schlepp, chair of the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors. “This sets the stage for Montana to lead innovation efforts into the future, requiring significant and sustainable growth in the mining industry. Critical materials and rare earth minerals in our region are key to securing our supply chain and producing photonic sensing systems.”

Earlier this month, Lee Montana reporter Tom Lutey broke the news that the U.S. Department of Energy planned to spend up to $1 billion developing the technology in a three-state hydrogen hub, involving Washington, Oregon and Montana. A solar-powered hydrogen project in St. Regis has been included in that project.