Business leaders behind Missoula’s rise as a growing technology center and leaders of the University of Montana received praise Tuesday from U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who called their efforts on the cyber front the right plan launched at the right time.

Daines, R-Mont., met with 20 members of the university and business communities in a roundtable discussion aimed at big data, cyber security and Missoula’s push to grow jobs in the competitive world of high technology.

“There are two types of companies out there – those that have been hacked and those that know they’ve been hacked,” said Daines, a member of the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security. “It’s the right time to be encouraging this and it’s really worthwhile.”

The discussion played out in loose format between the congressman and local tech leaders, including those from TeraDact Solutions, GCS Research, LMG Security, Alps Corp. and Washington Corp., among others.

Chris Schrichte, CEO and president of TeraDact, said big data and cyber operations have been dominated by large companies with the muscle to leverage existing data to their benefit, often at the expense of mid-market companies.

But Schrichte said that could change as a new Cyber Innovation Laboratory opens at UM. Paid for by contributions from the private sector, the lab will offer everything from a four-class track on computer forensics and security, to doctoral work at the highest level.

“There’s no easy way for a middle-market business to get their arms around this problem,” Schrichte said. “I feel one of the big opportunities for this lab is to put together a combination of capabilities to build a fairly all-encompassing solution for middle-market businesses. It’s a terrific opportunity.”

Schrichte said TeraDact is working with UM to donate an enterprise license for the company’s software, valued at $250,000. Once the program is in place, Schrichte said, it’ll be up to students to work it over.

Those students could help Missoula’s existing tech firms fill their rosters as they look for skilled workers, and it could help lure new firms to the state.

Schrichte and others told Daines there aren’t enough data scientists to meet demand – one that will likely grow in the coming years. That, he said, is the role of the university, and local companies are willing to support the push.

“It presents us with a very real opportunity to leverage the student body and others with access to the cyber lab to help us build the rules,” said Schrichte. “We’ll make it open source so we can continue to collect the rules and leverage our partners to build something to take out into the marketplace.”

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UM President Royce Engstrom said the growing cooperation between the university and the private sector has also attracted those who have served the tech world on a national level, including Gus Hunt.

A retired CIA chief technology officer, Hunt was recently hired as chief strategist for TeraDact.

The Kauffman Foundation also ranked Missoula fifth among small metros for its number of high-tech launches, and first for having the largest number of new tech companies started between 1990 and 2010.

The report gave partial credit to UM.

“The opportunity is real,” said Clayton Christian, the Montana commissioner of higher education. “It’s what we need to focus on and what we need the university to respond to. The Montana University System has a role in that as well.”

Administrators and faculty members also brought Daines up to speed on the work taking place on campus, including that of Steve Running, a Regents professor of ecology.

Running’s lab writes software for NASA satellites, and it has been doing so for 25 years. Back in the 1980s, Running said, NASA paid to bring the Internet to campus. The bandwidth has since expanded, surpassing data measured in terabytes.

But despite the progress made on several fronts, Running said, local jobs in the tech industry are still lacking. Montana continues to lose it’s “best and brightest” to other states.

“I’ve graduated 25 Ph.D.s from here and none of them have been able to stay around,” Running said. “I’d sure like to see more of a high-tech industry developed in Montana so we’re not sending all this brain power back to NASA centers in the East.”

Daines took note of the comment.

“Technology has removed geography as a constant,” Daines said. “I can’t think of anything more we need than this.”

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

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