Up and running: Blackfoot’s innovation lab looks to shape Missoula’s technology future

Joe Fanguy, vice president of strategic development at Blackfoot, is spearheading C2M beta with other partners at the company headquarters on West Broadway. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the University of Montana hosted its Innovate UM conference back in April, the day’s Finnish speakers detailed their success in building an innovation ecosystem, one that relies in part on funding from both the public and private sector.

In Missoula, the private part of that equation is up and running at Blackfoot Communications. Looking to diversify its identity, the company launched its C2M beta lab last month, positioning itself as a player in the city’s innovation future.

“We’re part of the private sector and we’re building a small group of like-minded folks from the private sector to drive that segment of the pod, all the way to collaborating with the city and the university,” said Joe Fanguy. “To me, it feels like there’s some momentum. Now we’re getting into the details of where we can see our footprint in that broader ecosystem.”

Fanguy, vice president of strategic development at Blackfoot, was hired by the growing technology company last year to spearhead C2M beta. The Audience Awards, a Missoula startup founded by Paige Williams, gained the distinction this month of becoming the first company accepted into C2M’s inaugural cohort.

Seated at a conference table at Blackfoot headquarters last week, Fanguy detailed his company’s vision behind the innovation lab, a place where entrepreneurs, investors and mentors come together in something of an incubator to help early stage businesses achieve success.

“We’ve created a laboratory experience where a company can ask the questions since we have relationships with a larger enterprise base,” said Fanguy. “We bring people in to help with that validation piece, and from that growth can be measured in sales, a product or investment.”

Seen as a corporate accelerator, the model has its advantages, Fanguy said. Among them, Blackfoot’s innovation lab brings multiple voices to the table, negating pressure from a narrow pool of investors looking for financial return.

At the same time, the lab does bring investors to the table, including Front Street Capital, which remains a partner in the project. Blackfoot also plays the corporate mentor with its own set of tools, including data technologies and a large customer base.

“The value we see is that we have a customer base of 15,000 residential households, and several thousand small to midsize enterprise businesses,” Fanguy said. “That market fit and customer validation is a critical piece of what we bring to the table.”

In something of a pitch session, companies selected to participate in the six-month program are vetted by an executive team assembled by Blackfoot. While the Audience Awards was the first to enter the program, Fanguy said others will follow later this year.

The initial goal looks to have no more than four participating companies at any given time, he said. As the effort grows, it may begin accepting open applications to fill out future cohorts.

“We have a one- to two-hour discussion where the company pitches the company,” Fanguy said. “We have a pretty robust discussion on what we have to offer and how we’d work together. The other critical piece to that is culture, and that’s a big part of it as well.”

Blackfoot, founded as a cooperative 65 years ago, benefits from the arrangement as well, Fanguy said.

The innovation lab is written into the company’s smart-growth strategy – itself a push to diversify Blackfoot from its telecom past to a leader in technology. He believes the effort fits well with Missoula’s push to establish an innovation ecosystem.

“We’ve seen great benefits from people being able to engage outside businesses,” said Fanguy. “The opportunity for our folks to engage early stage businesses, particularly those outside the traditional telecom space, is kind of a tough thing to do. So there’s been a lot of good energy and activity around that.”