MonTEC celebrates decade of incubating new companies
At first blush the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC), a 32,000-square-foot building situated across the river from the UM campus, seems like any other business warehouse. But MonTEC isn’t out to do business per se: Its goal is to help other businesses thrive in a world where startup companies sink more often than swim.
The multitenant business incubator represents a wide range of businesses, each with its own projects, ideas and personality. The eclectic mix provides a dynamic that average single corporations might not have. One room, for instance, is covered in computer-related posters and houses computer programmers working on software. In another room decorated with periodic tables, scientists look at water samples under microscopes.
“You really do have a lot of uniqueness from company to company,” says Joe Fanguy, UM director of technology transfer and current MonTEC president. “If you go into IBM or Google, there’s a certain degree of continuity. Here, each of the respective office spaces or laboratories has their own characteristics. They’re all doing something different.”
Since its inception 10 years ago, the nonprofit business incubator has housed fledgling companies, providing them with resources and support. And up until fall 2011, MonTEC was operated by the now-dissolved Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation. UM now manages the incubator and has a new five-member board in place with representation from UM, Missoula County and the Missoula Economic Partnership.
Fanguy, who holds a biophysical chemistry doctorate from Mississippi State University, was hired two years ago to lead UM’s technology transfer efforts. He is one of three UM administrators now serving on the MonTEC board. Fanguy also helps identify companies that would benefit from the incubator.
Fanguy intends that MonTEC’s fresh start will make it an even more effective business space for the University and future startups.
UM does about $65 million to $70 million of research a year. That’s enough to result in a range of new ideas for market products. In the science departments, professors and students work on technologies that often lead to intellectual properties and commercial licensing. But what happens from there? The truth is, of course, there’s a huge leap between the prototype stage in the academic world and the stage where a product is successful on the market. And, similarly, there’s a gap between a solid business plan and the point where a full-fledged company has the financial stability to fly on its own.
Purity Systems Inc. is one tenant company that takes advantage of MonTEC and its laboratory facilities. The company works on polymer technology that removes mercury and other metals from water. In the lab scientists perform analytical work, studying how their product works on a wide range of water samples.
“Some samples might have different pH levels,” Fanguy says. “Others might have different types of particulate matter in them. This lab helped the company optimize its commercial processes.”
Purity Systems now analyzes mining samples from around the world, but it wasn’t long ago that the company was just an idea in UM chemistry Professor Ed Rosenberg’s mind.
Moving forward, MonTEC’s focus on fostering startup companies linked to UM won’t change, but Fanguy says they are exploring new business models to make the facility stronger.
One major change will be using Rivertop Renewables as an anchor tenant (see related story). The company plans to expand and grow, providing MonTEC with a hearty company that will stabilize the incubator and serve as a prime example of the organization’s success.
Logistically, once construction is complete Rivertop will occupy the eastern 15,000 square feet of the facility, reducing the number of overall tenants to be incubated. Fanguy says that this will help provide more focus on the individual needs of each company rather than just managing the facility as a real estate venture.
“Our overall goal is to spend a few years helping early stage companies get to a point where they outgrow the need for an incubator and move out on their own creating more jobs for our local community,” he says.
When Same Sky Tickets moved in as a MonTEC tenant in 2009, it didn’t have an intellectual property contract with UM. It did, however, have the potential to create a relationship with UM students. The company tapped into the computer science department to find interns to help with development. It was a low-cost solution for the startup, but it also has benefited students.
“We’ve had at least a dozen different interns who have worked for us since that first summer,” Same Sky CEO Bob Clay says. “We’ve had interns that haven’t flourished really well – it’s a real job, you’re given real responsibilities, and we expected them to deliver. But currently three of my programmers who are full time for me now were unpaid interns at one point. It’s a good opportunity to learn what it’s like to work in a real environment and to work in a technical industry.”
Same Sky recently split into two companies. Same Sky Systems is a cloud-computing infrastructure company, which in June took over the system administration for the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center in Butte. The other, SkyTics, is a commercial company that does production applications for ticketing solutions specially customized for venues, performing groups, sports groups, fundraising and other events.
Same Sky’s growth and successes prompted a move out of MonTEC and into its own place, and MonTEC boasts several other successful graduates over the years, including Rocky Mountain Biologicals, a local vaccine company; Visual Learning Systems, a global information system software corporation; and Sunburst Sensors, which manufactures underwater scientific instruments.
“Do they all work out?” Fanguy says. “Of course not. That’s sort of the game of this. If one in 10 does, that’s actually a pretty good statistic.”
Still, part of UM’s new plan is to offer more support opportunities through collaboration with UM’s School of Business Administration and the newly formed Missoula Economic Partnership. Fanguy says MonTEC also will pilot an executive-in-residence program in 2012 that will allow experienced entrepreneurs to work hand-in-hand with tenant companies on business-plan development and identifying growth milestones.
The payoff for working hard to bolster these companies has a domino effect. MonTEC can help tenant companies. Tenant companies can help promote UM research, which can, in turn, help promote student learning. In the end, when a company is ready to leave MonTEC it also can benefit the Missoula economy.
“As an institution we’re good at research, we’re good at education, we’re good at service, but we don’t run a Fortune 500 company,” says Fanguy. “These companies bring a different mindset to the game, and that collaboration helps our overall research efforts as a University – which can translate into economic opportunities for the state of Montana and our country.”
— By Erika Fredrickson
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