Growing Missoula’s bioscience industry needs focus on workforce development

Brigitta Miranda-Freer, executive director of the Montana World Trade Center, discusses the significance of the award and the potential of the bioscience industry in Missoula and elsewhere in the state. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Those working to incubate Montana’s bioscience industry and take it to the next level will focus on developing the workforce needed to fill new jobs created in the process, saying it’s a critical piece to growing the emerging sector in Missoula.

A $500,000 annual award from the U.S. Small Business Administration will help get the process started. The grant was one of seven issued nationally this month by the SBA, something local experts see as a nod to the industry’s future.

The Montana Technology Enterprise Center in Missoula was the primary recipient.

“I think it speaks to the fact that the SBA really took note of what was occurring here in our state organically, took note of the partners collaborating on this project, and really felt they’d have a strong return on investment by contributing to our work here,” said Brigitta Miranda-Freer, executive director of the Montana World Trade Center.

Freer joined Nicol Rush of the Missoula Economic Partnership in a live recording of Justin Angle’s podcast, “A New Angle,” during last week’s InnovateUM conference held in downtown Missoula.

Rush said the SBA recognized the work taking place in Montana’s burgeoning bioscience industry and awarded the grant to further develop it. The industry has been on MEP’s radar for several years.

“We do have a very strong bioscience component in Montana, especially here in Missoula,” said Rush. “We have a really strong university here, and a lot of what makes the bioscience sector strong in Missoula and across the state has to do with our research and development, and the incredible talent our university puts out.”

The collaboration involves several key players, including the University of Montana, MonTEC, the Missoula Economic Partnership, the Montana World Trade Center, the Montana Bioscience Alliance and Swan Valley Medical.

The goals are simple, at least in concept, and include communicating to the outside world the work taking place in Montana while providing the technical support to expand research and development. It also includes a workforce component, though that portion may not come easy.

Like a lot of cities nationwide, Rush said, Missoula faces a shortage of workers. The unemployment rate hovers at 4 percent while the workforce participation rate is at an historically high 63 percent.

“In our community, everyone who can work and wants to be working is working right now,” said Rush. “We also have an aging population. Looking ahead, we’ll have to replace the Baby Boomers who are retiring, and that can be a big challenge for us as they leave the workforce with all their skills and experience. We don’t necessarily have a good pipeline of people coming forward to replace those skills.”

To overcome the challenges, MEP plans to bring together a list of community partners, including UM and Missoula College. The city’s economic developers will be called upon, as will the city’s business and industry leaders.

It will also look to the success of the university’s collaboration with ATG and Cognizant, which recently launched a program to train students for current and future jobs within the company. The global tech firm has plans for additional growth in Missoula, and it’s relying in part on UM to help develop the necessary talent.

“We’ve already seen some excellent success stories with the university partnering with industry in a very agile fashion to help meet the existing needs of that industry and develop plans moving forward,” said Freer. “Pieces like that will be part of the overall puzzle and the solution we provide as a university and as part of this workforce development program.”