Montana Instruments: Building cryogenic microscopes, and community, while changing the world
For Montana Instruments founder Luke Mauritsen, a company is more than a company. That’s why each device MI builds is constructed next to a picture of the person who will receive it. That’s why there’s a wall filled with pictures of each man or woman who has ever bought a device.
And that’s why Mauritsen had a lightning bolt shaved into the side of his head for much of the autumn.
The lightning bolt challenge was an incentive. Employees were tasked with a formidable goal and a deadline. If they met their goal, Mauritsen would drop everything and have a lightning bolt shaved into the side of his head.
On the morning of the final day, Mauritsen got the word: The project was completed. He sported a fresh new haircut at his board meeting that same afternoon.
Mauritsen founded Montana Instruments in 2009 out of a desire to improve technology in the field of cryogenics. He saw a need for more efficient equipment that could help scientists and creators change the world.
He’s passionate about that mission.
“We get to affect the pace of innovation,” Mauritsen said. “I think it’s really cool that we get to be at the heart of that. What we did is allow all these researchers worldwide to work faster and get answers faster.”
And the way Montana Instruments enables scientists to achieve their goals could come straight out of a science fiction novel.
“We’re developing technologies that are allowing scientists to actually pioneer new materials,” Mauritsen said. “Those materials will actually be changing your world in the next 10 years.”
Montana Instruments builds Cryostations (R), cryogenic microscopes capable of maintaining a temperature less than four degrees Kelvin. At four degrees above absolute zero, noise in a material is substantially reduced and some properties, like superconductivity, only exist at low temperatures. This allows researchers to examine materials in ways that are impossible at room temperature.
“In our instruments, people are saying, ‘I have this new material I’ve created,’” Mauritsen said. “That means that molecules are next to other molecules that have never been next to each other in the history of mankind. And we don’t know how they interact. We allow [scientists] to go in and test fundamental questions in brand-new materials.”
Mauritsen said this could have huge implications, especially for the fast-growing quantum computing industry. Other Montana Instruments customers are researchers, physicists, chemists, and material scientists, all over the world. Mauritsen said they have a particularly large customer base in Chinese universities.
Each Cryostation is carefully crafted in the Bozeman warehouse for the customer who orders it. Some employees build parts while others assemble the microscopes at special stations, many of which are named after ocean creatures.
“They like to have fun,” Mauritsen chuckled as he walked past the Long-Beaked Common Dolphin station.
Unlike a stereotypical microscope, Cryostations are highly specialized tools that have redefined the high-end cryogenic microscope. Mauritsen said the product was entirely new when he started, and it took about a year for sales to take off. Today, they have hundreds of instruments all over the world.
But Mauritsen said his company is about more than cutting-edge technology. It’s about building community and opportunity, both inside and outside the company.
Montana Instruments is always looking for ways to give back to the community. Mauritsen said the company is involved in the local Rotary Club and is donating to aid efforts for fire-affected communities in Montana. Mauritsen said his employees often make donations to causes that the company will match.
But the company is dedicated to more than just monetary contributions; Mauritsen is particularly proud of Montana Instruments’ high tech apprenticeship, which allows the company to give time and talent back to the community by training students.
“We’re giving students an experience that they really can’t get through school,” Mauritsen said. “It’s oriented differently than what you’d think of in an internship. A high tech apprenticeship is more of a team-based approach that is highly mentored.”
Integration technician Rob Michaelson received a degree in mechanical engineering technology from Montana State University and has been working for Montana Instruments for almost two years. He likes being able to work with his hands at Montana Instruments, but he is also looking forward to pursuing other interesting positions at the company.OK
“You’re definitely not stuck anywhere,” Michaelson said. “ I really like that. I’m just starting customer service. That’s what I’m wanting to get better at — maybe doing some customer visits, working on systems in the field some day, and mastering all the new products that come in.”
There are lots of opportunities for growth at Montana Instruments. Mauritsen said the company is anticipating the launch of three new products during 2018, and they’ll be looking for new hires to join their tight-knit team of 40.
Jessica Donnelly has worked at Montana Instruments for nearly three years. As an integration technician like Michaelson, she helps build and test parts for the devices. With a background in biology, Donnelly said the work at MI was totally new to her at first, but she was grateful for the opportunity to learn something new. Donnelly said the company culture is especially important to her.
“I like the culture of teamwork,” she said. “We have a good relationship between coworkers and a good understanding that we need time to get work done, but you also need time for your family and time for yourself. We get the opportunity to do all those things here.”
The culture at Montana Instruments is all about quality time. Employees strive to make the best use of their time at work so they can spend time with their families and friends, volunteering, or pursuing personal interests.
Mauritsen said Montana Instruments’ dedication to its employees and customers is an essential part of the company’s work. Montana Instruments is about more than supporting new technology, it’s about creating a culture that cares about people, he said.
“A company is more than a company,” Mauritsen likes to say. “It has to be. You’re doing life together. A person is a whole person, and a company can recognize that.”
Some companies are out to change the world. Some aim to strengthen their local communities. And some companies work within, building better people who become brand ambassadors for the company.
Mauritsen humbly wants to do it all.
About the Author: Katy Spence is a staff writer and digital content specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.
About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.