Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) A consortium of Montana businesses, universities and workforce development groups have been designated as one of 31 newly announced Regional Innovation and Technology Hubs that will be able to utilize portions of $75 million in grant money to advance American technology.

The Headwaters Hub, led by Accelerate Montana, was one of the 31 consortiums to receive the designation out of 370 that applied, according to the White House. The state was also awarded $500,000 in Strategy Development funding to help launch the effort in Montana.

Montana’s tech hub will center around photonics – optical and laser technologies, primarily – as well as autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and how those technologies can be used in applications for self-driving vehicles, LiDAR emissions tracking, agriculture and wildfire management, among other things, according to a proposal from the group.

There are already 40 photonics companies in Montana that already employ more than 1,000 people at higher wages than Montana’s average, and the consortium believes that could expand up to 5,000 jobs under the new program and continued growth in the sector. The hub will encompass the Kalispell, Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow and Bozeman regions.

“The Headwaters Hub is poised to create a globally competitive technology sector built around photonic remote sensing technologies and their deployment in autonomous systems to address local and global challenges in agriculture, defense, disaster prevention, and critical natural resource management,” the group wrote in their original proposal documents.

The Montana Department of Commerce, which helped organize the application along with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and Montana Chamber of Commerce, said there are 18 lead members of the consortium, including both the Montana University System and Montana State University, Salish Kootenai College, multiple businesses, the state chamber of commerce, and the lead applicant, Accelerate Montana at the University of Montana, which will receive the funding for the projects.

The businesses, governments, higher education institutions and other organizations will work together to try to bolster their efforts on both the research and product side of the program.

Montana’s hub is one of three focused on autonomous system technology, along with one in Oklahoma and another based in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The hubs will also receive technical and intellectual property assistance from federal agencies, the White House said.

The tech hub program comes out of the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act signed into law last year to try to give the U.S. a competitive edge in the technology race against China. The Montana group’s application directly referenced needing to keep up with Asian development in the photonics field.

“This growing market demand, and the opportunities it creates, exceeds current capacity, both in Montana and nationally, to commercialize and manufacture new technologies and train the skilled workforce needed to support the sector,” the application said. “There is an urgent need for growth in domestic photonics capabilities to offset the rapid shift toward Asia.”

Todd O’Hair, the president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said several industries would benefit from the program and would give the state a chance to “punch above our weight” in competing for grant money and other technology.

Jason Yager, president of the Montana Photonics and Quantum Alliance, called being designated a tech hub was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the industry and the coalition of groups.

“By solving the problems of tomorrow today, this grant will have an impact not only locally, but nationally and globally,” Yager said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who helped ensure the program would focus on rural states in addition to more metropolitan areas, said in a statement that the tech hub will help “turbocharge Montana’s economy, small businesses, and academic institutions.”

“Today’s designation affirms what Montanans across our state already know to be true: there is untapped potential in rural America, and the Treasure State is ready to lead the nation in strengthening American security through domestic manufacturing and innovation,” Tester said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said the hub’s selection will help the state contribute more technology to national security.

“Today’s announcement is another milestone for Montana, speaks volumes about the quality of our workforce and further solidifies our standing as a leading hub for cutting edge technology and research in the country,” Daines said in a statement.