UNAVCO, a global engineering and data firm, opening office in Missoula

UNAVCO Inc plans to move its headquarters to Missoula. (UNAVCO photo)

UNAVCO Inc, a scientific institute that serves as a global leader for engineering and data handling, plans to open an office in Missoula, where it can establish new partnerships with the Montana University System and capitalize off the city’s skilled workforce.

The Missoula Economic Partnership on Tuesday received approval from Missoula County to submit a job creation grant on behalf of UNAVCO Inc., which is looking to create 27 local jobs.

While the timeline remains in flux, landing the global institute fits well with Missoula’s economic goals around technology and science and the spin-off companies they create.

“They’re currently based in Boulder, Colorado, but are planning to open a new headquarters office in Missoula,” said Nicole Rush, the business initiatives director for MEP. “What’s really exciting is all the synergy with what’s already going on, not only in Missoula, but across Montana.”

UNAVCO operates the national Earth Science geodetic facility under an award from the National Science Foundation and NASA, along with other federal agencies and private partners.

Organization president Rebecca Bendick said the nonprofit claims 233 members from academic institutions around the world and currently employs 87 people, most of them possessing advanced degrees or technical training.

It’s annual operating budget stands at around $18 million.

“Missoula has a ready and able technically skilled workforce here that we’d love to recruit and integrate into our geodetic workforce,” Bendick said. “Missoula also offers an exceptional quality of life and frankly an affordability that Boulder does not offer to my scientific and technical workforce.”

Using geodesy, UNAVCO studies, records and monitors the position of various bodies, from the rotation of the earth to the movement of tectonic plates. It tracks the movement of ships and aircraft and can be used to guide autonomous vehicles.

It can also measure sea level changes resulting from climate change and evaluate various hazards and risks, which are key to early warning. The data it collects are open sourced and available to the wider scientific community.

“It’s the most useful science that nobody knows what the heck it is,” Bendick said of geodesy. “You might take for granted that you know where things are, but it really takes complicated engineering and science to know exactly where things are. Understanding the position of different kinds of objects in space and time has a huge range of both scientific and technical applications.”

Bendick cited a number of reasons why she and her board of directors opted to open a branch in Missoula. Aside from a skilled workforce and quality of life, Missoula and Bozeman offer unique opportunities to leverage research and development.

“We’re also very eager to leverage Montana’s incentives for technology transfer,” she said. “Montana is a great place to have small spin-off companies that can use some of the things developed at UNAVCO more effectively in the commercial sector.”