UM, investors see big data potential, Missoula as tech hub

2013-03-03T11:30:00Z 2014-10-19T08:07:41Z UM, investors see big data potential, Missoula as tech hub missoulian.com

Community leaders looking to reinvent Missoula after the collapse of the timber industry may have found the next big thing – a small but growing network of companies rooted in big data and emerging Internet technologies.

Entrepreneurs behind Missoula’s network of high-tech startups, supported by backers of a new program at the University of Montana and investors looking to sponsor the future, see potential in Missoula as a technology hub of the Northern Rockies.

On a quiet weekday afternoon, employees at TerraEchos sat before their monitors, working to predict cyber-security attacks using proprietary software. Across town, employees at GCS Research kept busy developing next-generation Geographic Information Systems and remote-sensing applications.

Both companies have grown since they were founded in Missoula, and both firms look to expand in the years ahead. But their plans for future growth may hinge upon cultivating a local pool of talented workers educated on the cutting edge of mathematics, computer science and information systems.

“It’s very hard to find people who have the talents we need,” said Whitney Hepp, director of marketing and operations at TerraEchos. “Supporting the university is like creating a pool within our community to attract these students, keep them here and grow this technology center right in Missoula.”

TerraEchos is one of Missoula’s fastest growing tech firms. It processes, correlates and analyzes moving data in real time, and it acts upon that data in the moment. Hepp calls it the “speed of now” and says the need to read large amounts of data, as it passes, is in high demand.

The company moved to its new downtown location on Spruce Street in January and now employs 11 workers. Nine of Terra’s 11 employees are UM graduates, or have ties to the school.

“We had a three- to five-year plan to double our staff every year,” said Misti James, Terra’s chief operating officer. “We hit that target this year, going from five to 11. We plan on going from 11 to 20 next year, and 20 to 40 after that.”

Alex Philp, founder and president of GCS Research, recognized the shortage of skilled workers early on. He urged UM to launch a course on IBM’s InfoSphere Streams software and has been a staunch advocate for growing the program ever since.

***

Last fall and with funding in place, UM became the first university in the world to offer the IBM course at the undergraduate level. In doing so, it garnered national attention from tech bloggers and data watchdogs. It also laid the groundwork for what supporters see as Missoula’s future as a tech center.

“It’s putting Missoula on an international map as a world leader in information technology,” said Philp. “If we don’t stay ahead, other universities and other communities will catch up. We need to give these resources to students. They’re hungry for this kind of stuff.”

UM expanded the Streams course this spring and opened the class to new disciplines. Three departments are now looking to join forces in launching a new Big Data Program at the university, with some pushing for a full degree program.

Eric Tangedahl, director of information systems technology in the School of Business Administration, is co-teaching the Streams program this semester with Brian Steele, an associate professor of mathematics. The programs are working with other departments at UM to expand the university’s big-data offerings, and they may gear additional courses toward the subject.

“It’s not one person solving these problems – it’s a skill set coming together,” said Tangedahl. “Everyone is saying this is a big area. They tend to say there won’t be enough people to fill these jobs.”

A survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review echoed those concerns. Nearly three out of every four tech firms surveyed planned to hire in the field, but reported that finding qualified employees was “challenging” to “very difficult.”

In its own report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics now predicts a 24 percent increase over the next eight years in the demand for professionals with data analytics skills. The Harvard survey also found that 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and federal tech and business leaders, had funded big-data initiatives on the horizon.

“That’s not surprising given the massive amount of buzz big data has garnered,” wrote Christy Maver, an IBM big-data product marketing manager. “What keeps these leaders up at night is how they’re going to staff these initiatives.”

Maver went on to say that big data was not a fad – it’s not a tech bubble waiting to burst. The big-data world is “the world in which we live now, in which businesses operate.” Developing the talent to fill future jobs may be the biggest challenge facing the industry.

***

While Missoula entrepreneurs say that while finding workers creates challenges for tech firms looking to grow, it also has created an opportunity local leaders are looking to capitalize on.

The Missoula Economic Partnership recently launched its new Big Data Alliance, and Clyde Neu, chief financial officer of TerraEchos, believes the community – with UM growing its curriculum to meet the needs – is one step ahead of competitors.

Neu, who served as MBA director at UM, refers to Bend, Ore., when promoting Missoula’s potential as a tech hub. Bend recently was featured in Entrepreneur magazine as the next big city for new startups – one that recovered from the crash of the timber industry, its former bread and butter.

The article promoted Bend’s potential by naming its size, diversity and its network of successful entrepreneurs willing to mentor new startups. It lauded the city’s schools, recreation and proximity to large metro areas – namely its nonstop flights to Denver, Seattle and San Francisco – as selling points.

When Neu looks at Missoula, he sees Bend’s sister city: same size, same past and same amenities. But there’s one component missing from Bend that Missoula has, that being the educational infrastructure needed to train employees.

“I looked at Missoula and realized we have that piece that’s missing in Bend,” said Neu. “We have successful startups here that have grown, been acquired or gone public. Now we need to seize the opportunity of having a university in our community.”

In his office last week, Neu spoke of venture capitalists and a growing interest among investors looking for promising new startups located in the Rocky Mountain region, including Missoula.

His own company received startup funding from Flywheel Ventures based in New Mexico. The investors also are backing Submittable, a Missoula firm that became the first tech company in Montana invited to Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based incubator program that helps emerging entrepreneurs fast track the development of their business.

“These are the kind of business that scale very quickly,” Neu said. “If they take root, they’ll be hiring people. Their growth is somewhat global – there’s no limitations. They leverage the Internet as they expand.

“That’s what excites me about the Missoula area. We also have an awful lot of small, high-tech information firms bubbling underneath the surface here, and some are rising to the top and attracting substantial funding.”

***

Leonid Kalachev, chair of the mathematical sciences department at UM, said Missoula’s push to emerge as a tech center gained momentum last month when Valinda Kennedy, a relationship manager with IBM’s Academic Initiative, visited the school.

As Kalachev puts it, big data streams in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It comes through social media, news media, sensors used by industry and security firms, the Internet, video cameras and more.

“They are constantly streaming through the Internet, cable, phone lines and wireless connections,” Kalachev said. “While the total amount of data is constantly increasing, the actual portion of it that’s analyzed is going down.”

The old way of analyzing data required large amounts of storage and painstaking review days and months later. But the old way, Kalachev said, doesn’t allow businesses to make instantaneous decisions based on data as it streams in real-time feeds.

Making sense of that information presents new algorithmic and computational challenges, and it offers unsurpassed business opportunities. UM program leaders in computer science, information systems and mathematics are now looking at the reality of the new Big Data Program.

“The University of Montana is ahead of the curve compared to any other university in the chase toward the Big Data Program,” Kalachev said. “Many high-tech companies in the U.S., including several in Missoula, are waiting for the students currently taking the Streams course, and they’re looking for students who eventually participate in the Big Data Program to be hired to work in these new complex and exciting problems.”

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

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. MTnative82
    Report Abuse
    MTnative82 - March 03, 2013 12:40 pm
    oh yeah and one more thing. we dont need more "tech" companies in this world. and we certainly dont need more technology. this is the stuff that is leading us into the depths of darkness. we need to focus on real trades and skills. traditional, authentic, skillful trades. like printing, book binding, textile manufacturing, masonry, forestry, farming, etc... etc... we need to turn the clock back on this world before its too late. a simpler way of life is the only solution, not a more complicated techno-micro-mumbo-crapo-bull. seriously, simple is the only way to prevent us from destroying ourselves. but whatever its probably too late anyway.
  2. MTnative82
    Report Abuse
    MTnative82 - March 03, 2013 12:32 pm
    yuck. you know the irony of things like this? these companies move in, as do their employees, they change the city, they change the culture, they bring their sick chain stores, their sick box stores, the transplants cheer for their favorite store opening in missoula (insert whatever here: dunkin doughnets, starbucks, white castle burger, inn-and out, whatever) soon all of missoula looks like north reserve, the price of living becomes to great for the muli-generation montanans, and the next thing you know missoula is no longer missoula---its everywhere america with all its sickness on full display 24/7. but hey they brought jobs right? sure, but they arent for us. they are for those not here yet, those who have no heart for this place, and for those who wouldnt think twice to change it.
  3. Russff
    Report Abuse
    Russff - March 03, 2013 9:37 am
    Martin,
    Great article but you, unfortunately, left off another "Big Data/Business Intelligence" company in Missoula. We're lucky to have one of the most experiences and respected data analysis experts in the country now living in Missoula. Joe Garrett has many years of experience as being the "call Joe" guy when a Fortune 100 company found that their multi-million, multi-year Big Data/Business Intelligence project either didn't work or the staff wouldn't use it. He has experience with working with just about every data source and analytics package available today. He found the cost and time necessary to have a world class data analysis system to be frustrating so he built his own "tech stack" that takes the challenges, cost and time out of the equation.

    Organizations now only have to give Inteneo Systems 5 or so questions that they think their data should be able to help them answer. Inteneo works with them to decide where the data resides and then, in a matter of weeks or shorter, develops dashboards of data analysis that begin to answer those questions. Users then quickly begin to build their own analytics to further answer these and many other questions. No longer does someone have to call an analyst for a chart or graph and then wait while it's developed. Everyone in the organization can see one version of the truth on their computer or mobile device whenever they need it.

    As a demonstration of the power of data, Joe developed an application that gathers the hourly snow measurements from the 783 government Snotel sites throughout the Western U.S. It gathers not only the last hour data but also the data for the past 7 days to compare it with already collected data to see if there have been any changes or corrections. This takes less than 2 minutes using the current Inteneo technology. Among the many answers that this system can provide is the ability to anyone to be notified if their local ski resort received a set amount of powder since the lifts shut down the night before through an alert on their mobile device. Now skiers can rely on scientific measurements of snow fall to hear if there really is 7 inches of powder waiting for them.

    Yes, Big Data is the new big big think in business and the press but any organization (for-profit, nonprofit, government, education, etc) first needs to understand its own data. Business Intelligence gives an organization the ability to better manage sales, marketing, HR, forecasting, outreach (social media including Tweets) and just about everything that contributes to a more successful operation. We've developed an archive of industry stories that further support this. Inteneo Systems http://www.matr.net/news.phtml?showall=1&catlabel=Inteneo+Systems&cat_id=152 and Government Technology http://www.matr.net/news.phtml?cat_id=33&catlabel=Government+Technology

    We applaud the efforts of MEP to develop a cluster. We would encourage any and all MEP supporters and members to explore the Inteneo technology to see how it can significantly improve their operations and strategic planning. We also look forward to participating in the Big Data Alliance being formed by the MEP.

    We realize that we can't be included in the stories that you posted today but do hope that we can be considered at some time in the near future to give even further support to the potential that Missoula can develop a rich and vibrant Big Data/Business Intelligence business cluster.

    Best,
    Russ Fletcher - Joe Garrett - Founders
    Inteneo Systems - Big Data/Business Intelligence Expertise from Big Sky Country
    406-531-8119
  4. Roger
    Report Abuse
    Roger - March 03, 2013 8:56 am
    I don't believe Missoula is known for its clean air.
  5. HelenWheels
    Report Abuse
    HelenWheels - March 03, 2013 8:27 am
    I've long thought that Missoula had the potential to foster high tech companies and jobs. Yes, it has the university, but local culture matters just as much. Clean air, good schools, healthy outdoor recreation, less traffic, access to good food and a sense of community are all qualities that attract highly educated tech workers. And though I can't generalize, like most well educated people, these workers have minds open to new ideas. They want a stimulating intellectual environment. Missoula has that too.
  6. Don Bergoust
    Report Abuse
    Don Bergoust - March 03, 2013 5:57 am
    See Betsy Cohen's piece on Mya for starters.
  7. hellgatenights
    Report Abuse
    hellgatenights - March 03, 2013 5:36 am
    Wow! Eleven employees.....better call Grunke and get the city council on board to lay out $10 million for a Tech Incubator.

    Another fantasy article by progressives that couldn't find those darn "Green" jobs.
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