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UM planning Innovation Campus, Commons as part of larger tech, medical corridor

In a meeting with city and county leaders on Wednesday, the University of Montana unveiled plans to craft and implement an Innovation Corridor across Missoula, stretching from the Mountain Campus west to a proposed technology park at Blackfoot communications.

Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM, said the project – dubbed “Innovate UM” – is based off similar models in the U.S. and Europe. The U in the plan stands for “university” and the M stands for Missoula.

“If you look around at what’s going on in Missoula with innovation, you’ve already got in place MonTEC at one end of the city,” Whittenburg said. “We’ve got a couple of projects we hope to develop at the university in what we’re calling an Innovation Commons and Innovation Campus.”

While the effort remains in the planning stages, it calls for an Innovation Corridor that would connect the Montana Technology Enterprise Center with a proposed Innovation Campus, which would occupy the motor pool just east of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

According to literature distributed Wednesday, the Innovation Campus would become “a hub of research in two areas of strength at UM – biotech and ecology” – with space devoted to businesses working in those fields.

It could also include a “world-class conference center” with views of Hellgate Canyon.

Also in the plans, the proposed Innovation Commons would connect AccelateMT in the Gilkey Building with a Lassonde Institute-style renovation of Jesse Hall. It would include a living-learning space on the upper floors for entrepreneurship students, as well as office space on the lower floors for startup and networking activities.

In Wednesday’s brief presentation, Whittenburg said the plan also incorporates the Riverfront Triangle, where Providence St. Patrick Hospital could potentially conduct health care research in partnership with UM.

Last month, Joe Fanguy, the new president of strategic development at Blackfoot, made official his company’s plans to establish a high-tech innovation park at its campus off West Broadway.

Whittenburg said the Innovation Corridor and all its components looks to blur the lines between the campus and the city – a move that’s been modeled in other locations, including Aalto University in Finland and the University of Utah Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.

“We’re going to try to implement that same sort of concept here in Missoula,” Whittenburg said. “We’re going to figure out how we can blur the lines between the university and the city.”

Over the past eight years, UM and local business leaders have worked to revitalize the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, which has since produced $30 million in private investment and moved the city’s upstart tech companies toward growth and long-term success.

But the facility has filled and the city’s economic leaders have been looking to establish what some have dubbed MonTEC 2.0. The university and the city have also embarked on new ways to collaborate, growing both student opportunities on campus and job opportunities off it.

“We’re going to have to work together somehow, so that’s what we’re going to try to do in this project,” Whittenburg said. “It might be that MonTEC is bio centered, and you’ve got health care and so on in the St. Pat’s region, and Internet technology on the other end at the Blackfoot park.”

Whittenburg suggested the master planning process is already underway at UM, though the school will likely look to the city to collaborate on the effort.

“We’re trying to plan that and do some joint planning between the city and the university rather than us having a separate master planning process at the university and a separate master planing process at the city,” he said. “We’d do it more jointly between the two of us to make everything actually work out as a whole.”

City Council member Bryan von Lossburg said he’d include the request as the city and other partners work on updating the Greater Missoula Downtown Master Plan.

“This work here, they should be compatible with each other and compliment each other,” he said.