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Laura Orvidas

Laura Orvidas is the new CEO of onX in Missoula after a long career at e-commerce giant Amazon.

The outlook for the high-tech industry in Montana has never been stronger, according to the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance (MTHTBA).

Three high-profile moves at Missoula companies are a major reason why Christina Henderson said her assessment of how the tech industry will grow in 2019 is “more positive than it’s ever been.”

First, a global Internet technology company called Cognizant acquired Advanced Technology Group in Missoula.

“The acquisition of ATG is huge news for this community,” Henderson said. “All indicators are Cognizant plans to add more jobs in Montana. They’re putting out ads soon and they may be hiring 30 new people a month for the foreseeable future. That’s hundreds of high-paying jobs, and it’s hard to overestimate the impact of even that one company on this community.”

The company already has more than 130 employees in Missoula, but Tom Stergios, senior vice president for strategy and corporate development for ATG in Missoula, said the company is likely to add jobs. He told the Missoulian earlier this year that Cognizant recently added 1,100 jobs in Texas, 500 in Arizona and has pledged to grow its U.S. workforce by about 25,000 during the next five years.

“We’ll be fighting for a good share of them,” he said.

Last February, a Missoula-based outdoor tech company called onX closed on a $20.3 million venture capital funding round led by a California-based growth equity firm called Summit Partners. OnX opened a second office in Bozeman and is closing in on 100 employees.

Among other innovations, the company developed an app that allows hunters and outdoor recreationists to use the mobile GPS in their devices to navigate in the backcountry. They can also see land-ownership boundaries in relation to where they stand. Henderson said the investment was a big boost for Montana’s tech scene, as it represented a record amount of venture capital into a single company in the state. The company also hired a former high-level Amazon executive, Laura Orvidas, as its new CEO.

Finally, the decision by a fitness tech company called ClassPass to hire more than 100 workers in downtown Missoula was a big boost to the economy here. The workers are relatively highly paid compared to many Missoula jobs, and they bring in money from out of state.

“All the signs point to the train isn’t stopping, the momentum is accelerating,” Henderson said. “We continue to get contacted by other companies that are looking at coming into Missoula and Montana.”

Henderson and MTHBA communications director Katy Spence compiled a recent report that found five key trends point to a rosy outlook for Montana’s tech sector in 2019. Those are:

•  several major acquisitions like the ATG move indicate future job growth,

•  record investments like that which onX experienced,

•  more leadership roles for women in tech,

•  special events that connect tech leaders with state and national policy-makers, 

• and new programs that support high-potential startups.

The MTHTBA’s 2018 industry survey found that Montana companies generated nearly $1.7 billion in revenues in 2017 and reported growth rates that were up to nine times faster than the statewide economy, according to the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Henderson said that the members of the Alliance employ nearly 6,000 people pay a median annual salary of $63,000, a 5 percent increase over 2016. That’s also more than twice the median earning per Montana worker and represents one of the highest-paying industries in the state.

Other smaller tech companies in Missoula made news in the last year as well. A Missoula-based public-private partnership between the University of Montana and former GlaxoSmithKline employees called Inimmune received $22.4 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health this summer. The money will go toward researching and developing a more robust flu vaccine.

Of course, Henderson's job is to hype the high-tech industry and promote the Alliance's member companies, so she has an incentive to paint an upbeat picture of the industry. However, the facts speak for themselves, and she and Spence compiled an entire list of reasons why the industry is thriving here and looks to build momentum next year.

“As we’ve been looking at the Montana high-tech industry for over five years, we’ve seen an upward trajectory every year, but 2018 really stands out,” Henderson said. “This year, the thing that stood out to me was we have real key stories and big evidence that 2019 could be a bigger year than ever.”

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