By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Mention entrepreneurship and tech-related startups and more often than not, Silicon Valley comes to mind. But a new national study could change that.

A report released this month by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance found that Missoula and Bozeman enjoy some of the highest levels of entrepreneurship in the country.

That includes small startup operations and companies with high growth potential, as well as spinoff activities. Add it all up and the findings suggest that entrepreneurs can succeed in smaller metros and rural areas of the country.

“Montana's recent startup boom shows that disruptive technology is bringing high-paying jobs to rural communities,” said Christina Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. “It's possible – even common – for entrepreneurs to build global businesses in very small towns.”

Among the 394 areas looked at by the study, Missoula ranked 9th and Bozeman 12th in their startup rate. The number of high-growth firms in Bozeman ranked higher than Denver, and it was nearly comparable to Washington, D.C., according to the report.

The study also found that Montana's strong network of support has helped boost entrepreneurial activity. That includes the likes of Blackstone LaunchPad, the Montana Code School and 1 Million Cups, where entrepreneurs seek advice from other founders.

"Montana's entrepreneurs repeatedly speak about their commitment to community and their sense of place,” said Paul Gladen, director of Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana. “This creates a highly collaborative and mutually supportive environment for entrepreneurs to grow and succeed."

Montana's high-tech economy generated more than $1 billion in revenue in 2016 and grew seven times faster than the statewide economy, a separate University of Montana study found.

According to that report, more than 14,000 people were employed at more than 2,300 high-tech businesses across the state. The bulk of those jobs were located in Missoula and Bozeman. Statewide, the average pay in the high-tech sector was $66,622 a year, up 2.3 percent from the prior year.

The Kauffman Index also has ranked Montana No. 1 for startup activity for four straight years.

“The talent being harnessed here from Bozeman to Missoula, to our rural communities, has made Montana a leader in startups and job creation,” said Greg Gianforte, founder of RightNow Technologies. “It’s proof that there’s no better place to build a business and enjoy our incredible way of life.”

The state's quality of life and access to technology isn't overlooked by other entrepreneurs, including Tom Stergous, the general manager of Advanced Technology Group's office in Missoula.

ATG, like other Missoula startups, has forged a close working relationship with the University of Montana, relying on the flagship university to recruit skilled workers.

“The high-quality workforce plays a major role in the growth of our state’s technology sector,” Stergous said. “For ATG, this means a close partnership with UM, where ATG recruits graduates and alumni who have the opportunity to do world-class consulting work in Montana and still find time to go rafting and skiing on weekends.”