Several years after city officials and the University of Montana sat down with area businesses to discuss the concept behind a technology corridor, a parallel effort has emerged as the school and its tech partners eye the creation of an innovation corridor.
Brigitta Miranda-Freer, who oversees the Montana Technology Enterprise Center and serves as executive director of the Montana World Trade Center, said the proposed innovation corridor would support additional biotech startups and other industries in the tech sector.
Earlier this year, MonTEC began seeking proposals from developers interested in constructing new facilities on the Missoula College and MonTEC campuses. The two facilities sit side by side but weren’t planned as one, and the space could be better utilized.
Under the proposal, Miranda-Freer said, the large properties would become the Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway. The 10-acre corridor would house “best-in-class businesses,” from startups to Fortune 100 firms.
“The Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway will definitely help meet critical infrastructure needs for our rapidly growing bioscience startups,” said Miranda-Freer. “It’s an extension of a team that can help researchers and other fledgling founders navigate the complexities of a startup – evaluating global market opportunity, securing funding, and making connections with peers and established businesses.”
The facility would also provide access to university resources, including technical lab equipment and nationally recognized experts, she said.
Plans to create a large technology campus near downtown Missoula began to take shape in 2017. Those with an eye on the city’s growing tech industry and entrepreneurial ecosystem said, even then, that MonTEC had reached capacity, leaving little room for new startups.
Early visions called for an innovation corridor running from MonTEC out West Broadway, where several large properties could be redeveloped in partnership with other businesses.
While that plan fizzled out, the push for an innovation corridor didn’t, and the proposed 10-acre campus on the east of the city could become a reality given its current momentum.
“UM is the economic engine for western Montana and our state’s business leaders know how critical it is to strengthen this partnership,” said UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz. “With MonTEC taking the lead, we’re working to move as quickly as possible to choose a developer and bring this important project to fruition.”
Miranda-Freer said a community advisory team will evaluate proposals from developers and recommend a final candidate to move the project forward later this fall. The chosen developer will own and operate the facility under a land-lease agreement.
Advocates believe the new gateway will help foster Missoula’s young tech companies, including those that currently occupy MonTEC, while making room for new startups to develop and grow. The impacts could have positive economic outcomes, supporters believe.
“This will create a catalytic culture for growth that we think will bring jobs, capital investment and an important pathway to long-term sustainability for UM’s ongoing economic development initiatives,” said Miranda-Freer. “That’s not only good for Missoula, that’s good for the state of Montana.”
Missoula’s new Downtown Master Plan envisioned East Broadway as a gateway that consolidates Missoula College and future university facilities. It also described the possibility of a technology hub, one that could accommodate a “complete tech campus.”
The gateway’s location on the MonTEC and Missoula College campus also places it across the river from the University of Montana. Support provided by the university’s Accelerate Montana program could play as a convenient bonus, backers say.
The program serves businesses at all stages of growth – from idea generation to global expansion. According to the university, it reaches about 700 businesses and entrepreneurs annually and brings tens of millions of dollars in capital investments, grants and contracts to the state.
“Accelerate Montana is quickly emerging as our state’s entrepreneurship and business development engine,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “In the years ahead, the Montana Innovation Corridor Gateway will serve as the model for university-led, public-private partnership development.”