The search for a new director is underway, the offices will be shelled out soon and, if all goes well, the Blackstone LaunchPad program at the University of Montana will begin accepting student entrepreneurs by spring.
Montana became the fifth state nationally to receive funding from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to launch an entrepreneurship program aimed at bringing new business ideas to fruition.
The state received the three-year, $2 million grant in July to build the program at UM and Montana State University. In September, Blackstone hired Pamela Haxby-Cote in Butte to serve as the state’s regional director, essentially bridging the two schools.
“The idea is to really partner people with individuals who have experience in their particular space,” said Joe Fanguy, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at UM. “It allows us to become part of this nationwide network of partnerships to help anyone stimulate, launch and grow their own network. It’s exciting for us to be part of that.”
As visualized, the concept works something like this: A student with a business idea submits a proposal to the LaunchPad program at one of the two Montana schools.
The program’s staff will help the entrepreneur develop his or her business model. What’s their market? Who are their customers? Once the process is complete, Fanguy said, the entrepreneur would gain access to the state’s mentorship program.
“That could take a few weeks for some and two years for others,” Fanguy said. “The idea is to help them develop their own story through the coaching resources we’ll have. If someone is interested in Internet technology, for example, we’ll find someone with experience in that particular space.”
The Blackstone LaunchPad program originated at the University of Miami in 2008, where it has since generated more than 1,400 business proposals and 210 new jobs.
Blackstone took that model to open programs in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Montana became the fifth state, and each new regional program will be linked, drawing on the best practices and ideas at other Blackstone-affiliated universities.
Fanguy, who visited the University of Miami to learn more about LaunchPad, said the concept extends beyond building new high-tech companies. At Miami, he learned of two concert pianists and doctorate holders who, through Blackstone, went on to open an academy of music.
“We don’t want to think of this as a high-tech place where you need a chemistry degree, or need some form of prior business knowledge,” said Fanguy. “This is really an open-door policy for folks to come in with an idea, a concept, and have LaunchPad help them with it.”
The program will be open to all UM and MSU students, regardless of discipline. The hope is to extend the program to UM and MSU’s affiliated campuses and possibly open it to alumni down the road.
At UM, at least, the program will collaborate with the School of Business Administration, the student Entrepreneurship Club and the Montana Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs. It also will complement the startup efforts taking place at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, or MonTEC, where Fanguy serves as president.
“We’re at this point of critical mass and there’s a lot of stuff happening here in Missoula,” Fanguy said. “This particular program gives us a new surge of activity in a way that hasn’t existed before.”
Recently, the Kauffman Foundation ranked Missoula among the top 20 cities nationally for high-tech startup businesses. Chemical Engineering News also highlighted Missoula for such startups as Rivertop Renewables and Blue Marble Biomaterials, a company that seeks to replace petroleum-based chemicals with sustainable, zero carbon specialty chemicals.
While much of the local activity still flies under the radar, Fanguy said, the state – and Missoula – are beginning to gain notice.
“The activities are increasing,” Fanguy said. “In the entrepreneurial space, we’ve had recent interest garnered from the Seattle area with people looking to do business here. The story is starting to get out, and I think Blackstone LaunchPad will bring a new level of awareness to our side of the state.”
The search for a director to head the LaunchPad program at UM will close by month’s end. The university will create permanent office space for the program in the University Center, and it expects the program to be operational by February.
MSU is hosting a ribbon cutting to open its LaunchPad program on Friday, Nov. 22, at 2 p.m. in the Strand Union Building. For more information on that effort, call (406) 994-4353.
“The sole focus of the program over the next number of years will be literally to create new businesses and new jobs,” Fanguy said. “It’s starting to shape the university’s position when it comes to economic contributions.”