When the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. folded two years ago, the future of the Montana Technology Enterprise Center on East Broadway was anything but certain.
But after a $3.5 million investment by the University of Montana in 2012 and the rise of new start-ups with a promising future, Joe Fanguy likes the way things are shaping up.
The progress has been anything but accidental.
“When you talk about research, a lot of times people like to use the word technology, but more often, today, the word is innovation,” said Fanguy, MonTEC’s president. “It’s not about a specific widget or discovery, but rather it’s about the business process, so I think you’ll see more diversification moving forward.”
The university took full management of MonTEC in late 2011 after the MAEDC folded. Fanguy, who also heads UM’s technology transfer office, set out to change MonTEC’s approach to incubating new companies.
Before the change, the center rented out its 30,000-square-foot facility to a collage of different companies looking to succeed as a start-up. After assuming management, the university invested $3.5 million on the center and Fanguy altered the way it rented the space.
“We now have a model focused 65 percent on an anchor tenant, 10 percent on service providers, and 25 percent on start-up companies,” Fanguy said. “We can now channel our business-support resources toward that 25 percent – the start-up companies – rather than trying to serve 30,000 square feet of tenants who all have different needs.”
Fanguy categorizes the start-ups, including those looking to raise investment capital, or those needing to build their management teams. Past MonTEC successes have included GCS Research and Rocky Mountain Biologicals, both based in Missoula.
The companies got their start at MonTEC. At least one – GCS Research – has spun off start-ups of its own, including TerraEchos.
“When you start to measure the broader impacts – that’s what we want to be about,” Fanguy said. “We need to be a starting point for companies to come through and graduate, but also ensure they have a culture embedded in them to go out and further that incubation process.”
Rivertop Renewables (rivertop.com) currently serves as MonTEC’s anchor tenant. The company produces green chemicals and bio-products built from renewable plant sugars for the detergent and petroleum industries.
The center also houses several new start-ups, including AIM GeoAnalytics (aimgeoanalytics.com), a geological consulting firm founded to meet the needs of the hydrocarbon industry. Mobile Minds, a company created by UM students to commercialize a language training program for military purposes, is also housed at the center.
Fanguy has worked to help MonTEC diversify, and in recent months, he believes it has succeeded in doing so. He named Mamalode (mamalode.com), a Missoula company that began in 2009 with a print magazine on parenting. It has recently expanded into Web and tablet formats and claims paid subscribers in all 50 states and 10 countries.
Mamaload joined MonTEC last month, partnering with the organization on a variety of initiatives to support their venture. Affordable rent and access to other business support and services have been key to the company’s early success.
“Moving into MonTEC has been a perfect fit for our business,” said Dori Gilels, publisher and chief operating officer of Mamaload. “Fanguy has a great vision for the center and there are a growing number of entrepreneurs in Missoula who stand to benefit from the assistance MonTEC can provide.”
Fanguy said the center has expanded beyond only UM patents or businesses launched by faculty. While that still occurs, MonTEC has pushed into the larger community. It now sees more student-run businesses, and Missoula-based startups with a high orientation for growth.
While nothing is guaranteed when launching a start-up, Fanguy sees growth on the horizon. While Montana State University in Bozeman has long been viewed as the state’s tech hub, UM and Missoula, he believes, are making progress in closing the gap.
“Five years from now, I liked to say we’ve had to 10 to 15 companies that have come through our program and graduated, and have either raised significant investment capital or established a strong headquarters base here in Missoula,” Fanguy said.