With the state's natural resources industries struggling in recent years,
western Montana has gained some respite from a relatively new sector:
Most of those companies are clustered in just a few cities, and local
officials say that their impact is significant. The university towns of
Bozeman and Missoulaalong with Kalispell, Butte, Great Falls and
Helenaare the main beneficiaries of this technological growth. For
example, 20 new technology-based companies in Bozeman (population, 22,600)
since the late 1980s has greatly improved that city's economic prospects,
says Dixie Swenson, executive director of the Gallatin Development Corp.
In Bozeman, about eight companies are engaged in research or production
of laser optic equipment, and Rebecca Mahurin, director of intellectual
property at Montana State University (MSU), Bozeman, says much of that
work is based on research that originated at the university. Often such
research is sponsored by a business, which then retains the first option
to license the product, Mahurin says.
There are also about 12 bio-tech companies in the Bozeman area, conducting
research for products in the food, health care, pharmaceutical and environmental
industries. Like the laser optics industry, many of these companies have
benefited from MSU's technology transfer program, according to Mahurin.
"The root of the expertise is found at the university," she says.
Similar expertise exists in Missoula at the Montana Biotechnology Center,
which is housed at the University of Montana and funded by the Montana
Science and Technology Alliance, a state agency that provides start-up
capital for technology-based businesses. Ron Klaphake, executive director
of the Missoula Economic Development Corp., recently produced a directory
of biotech resources that describes the state's public and private research
and development efforts. He says that the greater awareness that industry
participants have of the state's entire resources, the larger the industry
While part of Klaphake's job is to lure companies to the Missoula area,
he says that the emergence of the technology sector (Missoula also has
a growing software engineering industry) has occurred largely on its own.
Development officials from the state and other communities agree: Montana
is a nice place to live, says Jon Noel, director of Montana's Department
of Commerce, with a strong university system, qualified labor force and
attractive natural amenities. Besides, he adds, there is no need for many
of the new companies to locate near a particular industrial or transportation
base; many new products are information-based and are transferrable via
electronic means, and otherslike biological products or softwareare
quickly shipped by plane.
The president of a Missoula biotech company, Nurture Inc., which employs
13 at its research center, echoes those ideas: "Nurture Inc. is located
in Montana for a variety of significant reasons, paramount among which
are low cost of research and development and ready access to the resources
of the University of Montana system," writes Richard Potter in Klaphake's
biotech directory, Montana's Biotech Connection.