By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
When the Audience Awards partnered with GoDaddy last year to launch a new national video contest aimed at promoting small businesses, the Missoula-based company didn’t know it would end up on a separate list of firms to watch in 2017.
The Montana High Tech Business Alliance has named the Audience Awards, founded by Paige Williams, as one of 15 promising Montana companies to watch this year. Of the 15 on the list, five are based in Missoula.
Christina Henderson, executive director of the MHTBA, said the recognition is designed to raise the visibility of the state’s growing tech and manufacturing industries, along with jobs in the sector that need to be filled.
“Montana has more than 540 high-tech and manufacturing companies,” said Henderson. “We hope that by featuring a small sample of the many world-class businesses we have across the state, more people will see the momentum in our entrepreneurial community and seek job and investment opportunities in Montana.”
To form this list, Henderson said the MHTBA sought startups and growth companies either founded or headquartered in Montana. To make the list, they had to demonstrate steep revenue growth and have received notable investment by a venture capitalist or angel investor.
Other qualifiers included the ability to launch high-potential products or services, and demonstrate plans to expand operations or add jobs this year.
“I was particularly looking at high-growth companies,” said Henderson. “They tend to be close to $1 million or more in revenue and have 10 or more employees. This kind of high-growth category creates a lot of jobs and has an outside impact on the economy.”
Despite their early success, the businesses are often hard to see, operating under the radar of the communities they call home. Outside the occasional media report, few Missoula residents have heard of Clearas Water Recovery, LMG Security or Orbital Shift – three local firms that made the list.
Henderson said the MHTBA looks to raise their profile, pushing the companies’ brand and success beyond the state in hopes of attracting more investors.
“There’s a lot of efforts under way to attract more capital,” said Henderson. “It’s true that a good idea will attract money. But it’s also true that Montana, for many years, has ranked at the bottom in terms of venture capital investment.”
The state’s venture capital scene underwent a seismic shift in 2015 when Next Frontier Capital launched in Bozeman. It represented the state’s first venture capital fund at $20 million. Of the six companies funded by the firm thus far, three are in Missoula, including Orbital Shift, Clearas and Submittable.
Efforts to create other venture capital funds are underway, including Montana Innovation Co. in Missoula, which looks to provide $2.4 million in seed funding to qualified startups.
Noting Montana’s “businesses to watch” could bring other benefits as well, Henderson said.
“Not only does it benefit the companies, but all of Montana and the high-tech industry,” said Henderson. “Seeing them all together and getting a sense of the technology they’re investing in, the outside investment they’re attracting, the people they have leading the team – seeing the collection of those companies tells an even better story than seeing any one of them individually.”
According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, the state’s high-tech and manufacturing firms are growing seven times the overall Montana economy, and they’re paying twice the median wage.
The top challenge for the state’s growing tech industry is simply finding skilled talent and accessing capital, Henderson said.
“It’s a real encouragement to all of us in Montana hoping to see our economy grow, that these companies are out there,” said Henderson. “This provides tangible help connecting them with the resources that can help them grow even faster.”
The 15 Montana Companies to Watch in 2017 include:
Ascent Vision, Bozeman
Foundant Technologies, Bozeman
Montana Precision Products, Butte
Spika Design and Manufacturing, Lewistown
ViZn Energy, Columbia Falls