Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A deep panel of Montana university officials and technology gurus gathered in Missoula on Tuesday to discuss the challenges and opportunities that face the state as it looks to compete on a federal level for funding as a new technology hub.

Sen. Jon Tester, who convened the panel, helped draft the CHIPS and Sciences Act last year, setting up what one panelist described as a generational investment in American technology, innovation and job creation.

In crafting the bill, Tester joined Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, to include language that requires one of the new tech hubs to be established in a rural state, and Montana is already ahead of the game in vying for the role.

“This is going to be an opportunity if successful to move Montana forward,” Tester said. “We have a unique opportunity to do the sort of economic development that's going to create good-paying jobs, fix supply chains, and reduce our reliance on foreign adversaries by investing in research and development right here in Big Sky Country.”

Last year, Tester served on a bipartisan conference committee that was tasked with creating the CHIPS and Sciences Act. The new law allocates $39 billion to build American-made semiconductors, $11 billion in research and development, and $10 billion to establish regional technology and innovation hubs, including rural areas.

But workforce training, higher education and tribal participation also play a role in the program.

“After the last three weeks, I don't think there's anyone in the room that wouldn't agree that we need to stop relying on China for semiconductor chips for cars, tractors and cell phones, especially when we can do it right here in America,” Tester said. “I'm going to be working very hard over the next few months to make sure Montana is home to one of these tech hubs. The hard work isn't over, and that's what this roundtable is all about.”

The opportunities and challenges

Eric Smith, who heads the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the U.S Economic Development Administration, described the program as a tool to invest in the creation of American technology and the jobs that come with it.

Within the program's details lies $11.2 billion earmarked for research and development in next-generation energy technologies. That includes $800 million for renewable energy, $1 billion for advanced manufacturing, $1 billion to modernize the electrical grid, and $600 million for research on energy storage.

A lab technician conducts biomedical research at the University of Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
A lab technician conducts biomedical research at the University of Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
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“One thing that's really exciting about the new statute is that consortia are eligible parties,” Smith said. “It's really groups of organizations. We want that collaboration and governance among different types of organizations throughout an industry that are relevant across the different aspects of a technology and innovation cluster.”

Smith said the criteria to qualify must include higher education, firms within a particular tech industry, workforce training and economic development, and tribal participation.

While the program was authorized at $10 billion, the first funding round will include $500 million in both strategy and implementation grants. It's there where Montana looks to compete, said Clayton Christian, Montana's Commissioner of Higher Education.

“For far too long, states like Montana haven't been looked at, and that has real consequences. It obviously affects our state and our economy, but it also affects our families,” Christian said. “We see students that we educate unable to stay and work in high-tech jobs in Montana because we haven't had that core, at least until recently. The good news is, we can make good on this opportunity.”

Christian said Montana has advanced to become the second fastest growing research university system in the country. It added more than $100 million in enterprise expenditures over the past five years and is now counting more than $300 million annually.

Such investments help fuel business growth and brings more research to the state, both of which create good-paying jobs. The university can also help by educating the required workforce, according to University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.

“This is about creating jobs at all skill levels. It's not just about leading-edge technology. It's about creating jobs and sustainable economic growth for Americans and Montana workers not only for today, but also for my kids and my grandkids.”

The program would require and fuel jobs at all skill levels in Montana, experts said.
The program would require and fuel jobs at all skill levels in Montana, experts said.
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Bodnar and other university officials believe the Montana University System already has the key ingredients in place to compete for a technology hub.

That includes its growth in research. UM last year received R1 status – the highest designation given – and it has made a name in a number of areas ranging from biomedical science, artificial intelligence and natural resources, among others.

“We know research spawns new companies,” Bodnar said. “You're seeing a lot of capital flowing into this state to help seed these new companies. But we have to think of new, innovative ways of workforce development.”

Alison Harmon, the vice president of research and economic development at Montana State University, said the Bozeman campus also has laid a strong foundation that can help the state compete for a tech hub.

The school is home to more than 30 research centers ranging from photonics to biofilm, she said. While the state has much to offer as leverage, Harmon also identified potential challenges.

“We are used to competing and we need to get used to collaborating and start thinking about what a statewide collaboration looks like – what's our common purpose,” she said. “What would a rural tech hub look like versus urban? It's not going to be a big, shiny center with spokes. It's going to be a network of nodes, and those nodes are going to be all of our educational institutions in our state, along with industry alliances.”

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