HELENA – A $2 million grant from a private foundation announced Friday will link student entrepreneurs at the University of Montana and Montana State University with a network of business people to help them turn ideas into startup companies.

Blackstone Charitable Foundation, created by the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm based in New York, is providing the three-year grant totaling $2 million, known as Blackstone LaunchPad, in Montana.

Backers of the project, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., are working to raise an additional $600,000 from private businesses to augment the grant. They hope the project can continue past the three years – if successful entrepreneurs who have used the program donate money back to help sustain it.

It’s part of the foundation’s $50 million initiative to encourage and support entrepreneurship and job creation around the country.

The foundation estimated that LaunchPad has the potential to create 150 new ventures in Montana over the next five years.

Announcing the grant was Tony James, Blackstone’s president and chief operating officer, who also owns a ranch near Twin Bridges and serves on an advisory board for the Montana Land Reliance.

“Small businesses create 80 percent of the jobs in America,” James told a large crowd in the Capitol rotunda that included business executives, top university officials, politicians and MSU and UM students wearing blue Bobcat and maroon Grizzly T-shirts, respectively.

He said entrepreneurship levels the playing field and provides opportunity for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they are from.

“It is the American pioneer spirit today,” James said. “Today, we’re not conquering new lands anymore, but we’re conquering new frontiers with startup companies. So I think entrepreneurship is absolutely the core of the American character.”

James credited Tester with pressing him hard to bring the LaunchPad initiative to Montana ever since the business executive spoke about it at one of the senator’s small-business workshops last year.

Tester said Montana has some of the most resourceful people in the country and also cited the pioneer spirit.

“Our outlook and attitude come from our forefathers who headed West decades ago to start new lives,” he said. “They found a land full of opportunity, and they started new businesses and new ways of life. That entrepreneurial spirit remains a driving force for us today.”

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Here’s how the Blackstone LaunchPad will work here:

A partnership will be established with MSU, UM and Headwaters RC&D of Butte to introduce entrepreneurship as a viable career option for students.

The programs on the MSU and UM campuses will be placed in student union buildings and open to all 30,000 students, not just business students.

It will provide students with a network of venture coaches and entrepreneurial support aimed at transforming their ideas into sustainable ventures.

Montana becomes the fifth Blackstone Charitable Foundation region, joining Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Blackstone LaunchPad is modeled after a successful program developed at the University of Miami in Florida in 2008. So far, it has attracted nearly 2,600 participants, generated 1,413 business proposals and created 210 new jobs.

The new regional programs will be linked together, giving UM and MSU student entrepreneurs access to more than 200,000 peers across nine campuses and expert advisers for their ventures.

The grant announcement also drew praise from U. S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Gov. Steve Bullock, MSU President Waded Cruzado and UM President Royce Engstrom. U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was unable to attend, but sent a letter in support.

In interviews after the event, two students attending also were excited about the opportunities created by the Blackstone LaunchPad grant.

“I’m very grateful,” said Sabia Addleman, an MSU student from Northern California. “I’m fortunate to have some awesome opportunity available to me.”

Anna Correa, a UM student from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, agreed, saying: “I think it will be a good opportunity here.”

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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