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Major award to Missoula’s MonTEC a big boost for state’s bioscience industry

Inimmune technicians conduct research in their lab at MonTECH in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

While Missoula is home to a growing number of startups rooted in the biosiences, a new contract awarded by the U.S. Small Business Administration looks to unite state partners and grow the industry to its full potential.

The Montana Technology Enterprise Center, otherwise known as MonTEC, announced the $500,000 annual award on Tuesday. The business incubator, located in Missoula, was one of just seven across the U.S. to receive the grant, earning it accolades from state and community partners.

“That’s a big deal,” said Brigitta Miranda-Freer, executive director of the Montana World Trade Center. “It speaks to the value the funding body saw in putting some money behind things that are already occurring organically in the state of Montana.”

Miranda-Freer, who also oversees MonTEC operations, said the award helps fund a number of goals, from peer-to-peer development to gap funding and technical assistance.

Where the World Trade Center’s recent TechEx event helped turn the dial on Montana’s technology exports, focus can now be placed on doing the same for the biosciences.

“We like those events because they bring together expertise in helping businesses understand how to export their products most effectively and efficiently to other markets and mitigate their risk,” said Miranda-Freer. “They also engage industry peers as part of the learning process, not just from the experts out there, but from folks who have been in the trenches doing this every day and can speak frankly about what’s working and what’s not.”

Brigitta Miranda-Freer, executive director of the Montana World Trade Center, said the contract grant will help boost, promote and educate the state’s bioscience industry. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

While the state’s bioscience industry is growing and has a bright future, Miranda-Freer said progress must be made in promoting Montana’s offerings. She recently returned with a delegation from Missoula’s sister city in New Zealand, where the need for stronger messaging became clear.

The opportunities for direct foreign investment in Montana businesses exists, she said, but haven’t been widely promoted. Most people continue to hold an antiquated view of what drives Montana’s economy.

“It’s really enlightening for folks to understand what’s going on in our knowledge-based industries, like our biosciences, our photonics and optics, and our cloud computing industries,” she said. “It’s important to be able to message more broadly to the world so they understand how they may have options for vertical integration of supply chains using Montana firms, or the collaborative research and development opportunities that may exist here in Montana.”

Each of the contract’s six partners will play a specific role in the program, including the University of Montana, the Montana Bioscience Alliance, Swan Valley Medical and the Missoula Economic Partnership.

Two years ago, the Economic Partnership contracted a study of Missoula’s industry needs. Among other things, the study recommended stronger engagement between the city’s growing companies, educators and providers, and it included elements of workforce development.

“What this program does is provide MEP with funding to develop a pilot program to engage the biosciences sector in that conversation around workforce development,” said Nicol Rush with MEP. “Our role is to just focus on workforce development within in the biosciences industry.”

Missoula is already home to several bioscience companies, including those based at MonTEC. The program looks to grow those companies, boost their bottom line and create more good-paying jobs across Missoula and the state.

“At MonTEC, they have a few companies in the incubator that are bioscience companies, so it’s a natural fit,” said Rush. “Part of this grant provides funding to upgrade some of the facilities at MonTEC so they better meet the needs of those companies.”

In a statement, Gov. Steve Bullock said he wasn’t surprised by the award.

“This just further illustrates that the rest of the country is keying in to what we already know about our state,” he said. “Montana is a place where people recognize opportunity and feel empowered to go after it.”