It doesn’t look like much right now – a sparse room with rows of folding tables, empty walls and outgoing Macintosh computers.

But come spring, this room on the ground floor of the Interdisciplinary Science Building on the University of Montana campus will undergo a transformation, placing it on the cutting edge of solving today’s technological challenges.

“We’ve arranged for all this stuff to be out of here,” UM Provost Perry Brown said Thursday while standing amid the cluttered room. “The business groups are financing the equipment purchases and some of the software we’re getting. We’re supplying the room, and it’s fully networked.”

“The room,” as some are calling it, will become the university’s new Cyber Innovation Laboratory. When it opens to students this spring, it will offer lessons ranging from protecting computers against hackers to big data analytics.

On the cyber front, Missoula College was approved this week for a new information security program, offering students a four-class track on computer forensics, information assurance, cryptography, access control and disaster recovery, among others.

When it comes to big data, the lab will also provide a platform for both undergraduates and doctoral candidates conducting analytical research on everything from geosciences to interpreting data generated from the Bakken oil fields.

“Every well in the Bakken has sensors on it, and they’re transmitting data all the time,” Brown said. “When you have a steady stream of information from hundreds of wells, you’ve got a big data problem, and we’ve got people in our big data courses working on how to solve it.”

Companies want to interpret the data as well. In the case of the Bakken, Brown said, several prominent corporations are trying to solve the challenge that comes in interpreting massive amounts of streaming information. But in many cases, they lack the tools to do so.

The need for such technical skills has created something of a marriage between this arm of the university and local business, which are funding the $40,000 needed to equip and open the lab.

Locally, they include TeraDek and LMG Security, along with the ALPS Corp. and TerraEchos, among others. The Missoula Economic Partnership is on board, as are city officials, all collectively working to nurture Missoula’s burgeoning reputation as a center for high-tech startups.

“Many of these local companies do business with larger international companies,” said Matt Riley, the chief information officer at UM. “It’s very clear there are cyber issues for which we might be able to help the larger companies in conjunction with the smaller companies here in Missoula. If that takes off, we have opportunities to really expand this whole program area.”

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If things go as planned, those who complete the work that will soon be conducted in the Cyber Innovation Lab will find themselves highly employable. Local businesses will also gain the skilled workforce they’re hungry for.

The need for skilled workers has been a steady battle cry among local high-tech firms who want to stay local and expand their operations in Missoula, but often have a difficult time recruiting local talent.

“There’s a huge need for people out there who have the skills to go into a business to do the computer forensics, find out what has happened, what kind of problems you have,” Brown said. “We’re going to teach them how to do all those things, and there are lots of jobs for those kinds of people.”

Riley said the opening of the new lab will nearly coincide with Research Days planned on campus in April. He sees another “hack-a-thon” in the near future, pitting UM students against those from other universities, and bringing high school students into the lab to showcase their talents.

Brown added that while the initial startup cost was relatively small at $40,000, if the lab succeeds and meets the goals envisioned by both university and business leaders, it will soon expand. That could attract greater investments from larger corporations.

“We should grow out of this pretty fast,” Brown said. “Once we get the hardware and basic software up, we’ll see donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars of new software, and that’s the next level we’ll need to move to. But we’ve got to get it started first.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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