Cyber labs, big data and applied research have become the latest buzzwords around the University of Montana campus, helping land Missoula high atop the list of small metros claiming the greatest density of high-tech startups.

In a recent report, the Kauffman Foundation ranked Missoula fifth among cities with a population of less than 250,000 for its number of high-tech launches.

The report also ranked Missoula first in the small metro category for having the largest number of new tech companies started between 1990 and 2010.

“That study got a lot of national press,” said David Bell, president and chief operating officer of ALPS Corp. in Missoula. “It was nice to see Missoula hit that highlight reel.”

Rounding out the top five small metros in the Kauffman report were Cheyenne, Wyo., Corvallis, Ore., Champaign, Ill., and Grand Junction, Colo. The largest decrease in tech startups over the 20-year span went to Bismarck, N.D.

The report found that small metros with a large number of high-tech startups generally fall in areas home to a research university or other postsecondary institution.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that a university alone causes such density, the report noted, other small metros with a university presence had virtually no startups, leading the authors to suggest that some universities trigger economic growth “much better” than others.

“With UM in our own backyard, we have a highly skilled workforce with reasonable wage demands, and that’s a great combination,” said Bell. “Great ideas can be taught and incubated in the research arm of the university and thrust into the community.”

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Over the past few years, UM has increased its focus on economic growth by expanding into areas of applied research and development, and incubating new startup ventures.

In 2012, the university invested $1.75 million into MonTEC. It also assumed management of the facility, which is nearly at capacity and has spawned early talks of expansion.

More recently, UM also received $1 million from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to help new businesses get started. That program will open this year, and Scott Whittenburg, vice president of research and creative scholarship, expects it to help generate new jobs in the community.

“Blackstone LaunchPad, for both students and alumni, has created a large number of jobs in areas for which it was already implemented,” Whittenburg said. “We think that it has the potential to create 50 to 100 new jobs here.”

On the high-tech front, UM partnered two years ago with IBM to launch a new course teaching the company’s InfoSphere Streams computing platform, the first such program in the world.

In cooperation with state technology companies, UM also will open a Cyber Innovation Laboratory this year. Students will learn how hackers penetrate computer systems, helping companies protect themselves from data breaches.

“By conducting applied and translational research, we’ll support companies that are currently here, and out-of-state companies that might want to locate here,” Whittenburg said. “We’re working that aspect as well.”

Bell agreed, saying most tech companies now conduct business on a national and global level, not local and regional. The work can be performed from nearly any location, giving small metros like Missoula a leg up on the competition, largely due to its quality of life and the presence of UM.

But to stay on the list and maintain upward mobility in the hyper-competitive tech world, Bell said, Missoula and UM must continue to innovate, invest in new opportunities and develop an educated workforce.

“The university has made advancements very quickly relative to the traditional process of introducing new disciplines and course work,” Bell said. “But to fully realize the potential, it has to be faster still. We have a great start, but we really are just at the beginning.”

Bell called the challenge a call to action and an affirmation to anyone who doubted Missoula could appear on a tech list at all, let along in the top five.

“If you anecdotally ponder the high-tech cyber activity and big data that has occurred since 2010, when the brackets are reset for the next study, we should be positioned to do even better,” Bell said. “We want a vibrant and healthy industry fed by the university, inviting businesses to be here to provide better jobs and better wages.”

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

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