HELENA – At the end of 2014, eight months after the Montana High Tech Business Alliance was formed, the organization hoped to have 50 members. As of mid-February, it had 143.
The figures reflect what a MHTBA-commissioned University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research study found: Montana’s high-tech industries are booming, and the growth isn’t showing signs of stopping.
“I think the real story is where things go from here,” BBER Director Pat Barkey said.
Launched in April 2014, the MHTBA strives to provide networking, promotion and job growth for high tech and manufacturing jobs around the state.
Its “benchmarking” study by the BBER showed that wages in those industries are twice the median earning per Montana worker, and they are projected to pump $35 million of investments into the state this year.
Barkey and his colleagues also project the growth of high tech businesses to be eight to 10 times greater than the average statewide economic growth.
“High tech and manufacturing represents a very strong economic engine for the state,” Greg Gianforte, MHTBA board chair, said.
The biggest challenge facing these companies is finding skilled workers to hire, Gianforte said. This is why the alliance launched a high tech jobs portal that could help connect those companies with the skilled workers they seek.
Most of this booming growth is occurring in the greater Bozeman and Missoula markets. Alliance director Christina Henderson said about two-thirds of MHTBA’s members are in those two metropolitan areas.
But the beauty of many technology careers, Henderson said, is they don’t suffer from geographic limitations.
“The opportunities to grow businesses in Helena are similar to what’s going on across the state,” she said.
The alliance has several members in Helena that are striving for growth.
In 2014, Matt Gorecki, Eric Fulton and Kevin Hamm formed a new company – Treasure State Internet – with the goal of providing every corner of Montana the best, cutting-edge Internet possible.
As long as any worker in this state doesn't have the opportunity to sit down with a portal comparative with connections in major, urban technology hubs, Montana won’t be able to compete, Hamm said.
“We’re saying, 'Well, Montana is going to compete,' ” he added.
Treasure State Internet now provides Internet to customers all around Helena, including a regional office that develops software for San Francisco-based Social Finance, Inc. It sees its contribution to MHTBA as enabling companies such as SoFi to operate in Montana.
So far Treasure State is able to provide only wireless Internet, but this summer it hopes to launch high-speed fiber-optic Internet services.
“We’re doing Internet radically different than our competitors and I think that will ultimately allow us to succeed,” Fulton said.
Digital and non-digital gaming developers Anvil Studios, LLC, is another MHTBA member whose president operates in Helena.
Born and raised in Montana’s capital city, Dylan Kahn partnered with other “young talent” to “pursue this new, emerging demographic in the game industry.”
Kahn said that games traditionally target adolescent males, but recent data show 49 percent of gamers are now female and half are adults of the traditional family-starting age.
One of Anvil’s projects is a mobile adventure game called “Spirit” that features a strong female protagonist named Jainyu.
“We’re really trying to steer away from traditional perceptions of females in the gaming culture,” Kahn said.
Though working in Helena and other remote communities now, Kahn said the company is contemplating a move to Bozeman or Missoula within the next six to 10 months. And eventually it may be forced out of the state.
Kahn said Montana “hemorrhages” young talent out of the state every year, and if Anvil continues to prosper it may be forced to chase that talent to other areas.
“We haven't been concerned enough with the desires of young people who want to live here, the economy hasn’t reflected those desires or interests,” Kahn said.
For that to change, Kahn said the state, and Helena in particular, needs to shake things up. For him, it seems like Helena is behind Bozeman and Missoula in identifying the core values of the community and reaching beyond government to determine how that relates to the local economy.
He said the quality of life in Montana is enough to keep Anvil Studios in state, and he hopes the company can continue to operate here.
“We’re not here for the money yet. We’re here for the Montana values and making a good product and giving back to the culture that raised us,” he said.