Missoula is home to a vibrant group of industry experts building businesses and doing groundbreaking work in the high-tech sectors of big data and cybersecurity.
It’s also home to a large state university that began last year offering undergraduate classes aimed at preparing students to work in those rapidly expanding fields.
On Thursday, representatives from both groups had the ear of U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who listened to ideas about how cooperation between the public, private and higher education arenas could help turn Montana into a big data and cybersecurity hub.
“There’s really no specific agenda,” David Bell told the group gathered for a roundtable discussion. “But we want to gather answers as to what does (the university) need to help make it a reality, and then, how this broader group of big data players can play into helping the industry thrive here.”
Bell, president and chief executive officer of ALPS Corp., counts himself as a “tech-interested” community member. He organized the meeting in hopes the ideas presented would produce an authoritative report on Montana’s big data and cybersecurity capabilities.
Perry Brown, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Montana, noted that UM was the first university to offer undergraduate classes focused on teaching the IBM’s InfoSphere Streams program, which is designed to analyze massive amounts of data.
It’s an interdisciplinary class, Brown said, and work is ongoing to help multiple departments – from math to science to business – maintain “robust cooperation” to help develop an education program that will produce a workforce that can support big data and cybersecurity jobs.
Alex Philp, founder of several big data analytics and geographic information system companies in Montana and now president of GCS Research, helped facilitate the IBM connection with UM after being named an “IBM champion” several years ago.
It’s crucial, Philp said, that UM continues making progress on developing its big data and cybersecurity programs so its relationship with IBM can continue to move forward.
“What I’ve been working on very hard … is to reach a critical mass with IBM so we don’t fall off their radar,” Philp said.
Chris Schrichte, president and chief executive officer of TeraDact, a software and data integration company based in Missoula, noted that data scientists are the most sought-after professionals on the planet.
He agreed that it’s urgent for the university and elected officials to continue to foster and strengthen relationships with big players like IBM.
If IBM could be convinced to make a large investment at UM, like fund an endowed chair, “Microsoft money could follow,” Schrichte said. “Then the game is on.”
Cybersecurity is a very real issue, and privacy in the big data world is a growing concern, Daines said.
Big players in the corporate tech world like IBM, Microsoft or Oracle can sometimes be bogged down by size and corporate policy structures that don’t along them to keep pace the fast-moving world of big data, Daines said.
Montana companies have an edge because they can provide ground level, nimble and innovative solutions, he said.
“It’s happening. The horse is out of the barn,” Daines said. “The question is how can we facilitate and guide that horse?”
Sherri Davidoff suggested, then pledged to provide, a micro-investment of $2,000 to get a lab started at UM that would give students a chance to gain hands-on experience.
“Right now when we hire some folks, they’ll never actually done a port scan, they’ve never actually hacked a computer,” Davidoff said. “It’s amazing what you can do with a really small investment, and it’s amazing what students get out of it.”
Davidoff and husband Jonathan Ham started Lake Missoula Group LLC, an information security consulting firm that helps businesses around the world find and fix vulnerabilities in their information systems.
Paul Tripp, a retired National Security Agency cryptological officer now living in Missoula, suggested the Missoula needs a sensitive compartmented information facility – “a closed room where people are able to expose vulnerabilities.”
A SCIF could help bring attention and grants to Missoula, Tripp said.
For UM’s Brown, Thursday’s roundtable was a productive step that will be a part of a continuing conversation.
“This was enormously useful, because it brought together energetic people from the business community that have ideas and want to be a partner in this activity,” Brown said. “I’ve got a whole page of notes here. I’m pretty excited about the things I’m going to take back to the university today.”