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Jay Evans, president and CEO of Inimmune Corp., center, talks with then-University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, left, and Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016 during an announcement of the biotechnology company's move to Missoula and a tour of the lab, housed temporarily at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center.

The bioscience industry in Montana employs nearly 2,800 people who research everything from cutting-edge vaccines to pain treatment without opioids, and the sector just got a big financial shot in the arm.

The U.S. Small Business Administration has announced that the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC) in Missoula was one of seven entities across the United States selected to receive contract awards for “innovation cluster development.”

An innovation cluster, in a layperson’s terms, is a place where similar businesses and organizations can collaborate. MonTEC, on East Broadway, houses a handful of companies that work on everything from skin diseases to biological pest control agents for use in agriculture and forestry.

According to Lindsey Wallace of the Missoula Economic Partnership, the contract is for up to $500,000 for a one-year period, with an option to renew on an annual basis for up to four more years for a potential total of $2.5 million.

“We competed across the nation so I think it’s really wonderful,” explained Sharon Peterson, the executive director of the Montana Bioscience Alliance. “We started the Montana Bioscience Cluster Initiative in 2004 and it’s kept going ever since, but it’s always been a struggle.”

The initiative will also involve the Montana World Trade Center, the University of Montana, the Missoula Economic Partnership, and Swan Valley Medical. The money will fund engagement between companies and researchers, workforce development programs that align existing and anticipated industry need, technical assistance and a gap fund to help bioscience entrepreneurs.

Brigitta Miranda-Freer is the Montana World Trade Center executive director and also oversees MonTEC operations.

She said the contract involves a scope of work that has different layers.

“There will be training activities in order to help facilitate kind of more bioscience company formation and the result of all the research and development we have going on here, whether that’s at Montana State University or at the University of Montana,” she said. “This is a statewide initiative. There’ll be end-to-end training for bioscience entrepreneurs and one-on-one counseling is a big part of this.”

The money will also pay for a lot of “outward messaging”, she said.

“Kind of who we are as a state and what kinds of areas of expertise we have in this state,” she said. “We’ve got cutting-edge research in non-opioid pain medicine and early stage research and development for drug discovery and cutting-edge cancer research and CRISPR (gene-editing) technology. We want to make sure the industry globally understands what exists here in Montana so if there are opportunities for collaborative development, we’re here.”

Also, if large corporations are looking for “agile firms” to help with the drug discovery process, that messaging will make sure Montana companies are the first to be dialed on the phone, she added.

Miranda-Freer said the award, which was only doled out to seven other organizations nationally, is a sign that Montana’s business influence and reputation is growing.

“I think there’s some important recognition going on at the national level about what we have here as a state with our knowledge-based industries, and obviously this one is in relation to bioscience and growing that particular industry,” she said.

“But national funding sources are keying into the high levels of entrepreneurship we do have here as a state and they’re wanting to partner with us and fanning the flames of organic growth that we’ve seen so far," Miranda-Freer said.

She noted this isn't the only evidence that Montana is getting noticed by outside investors and government agencies.

"There are other initiatives underway out there validating what we’re seeing on the ground so we’re thrilled," she said.

She noted that all the partner organizations will keep track of how many jobs the funding creates and whether it leads to new business creation or current business expansion.

“This is, after all, an economic development initiative,” she said.

Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Steve Daines all sent statements out applauding the move.

“Montana Bioscience Cluster Initiative will have a great impact in our state by creating countless high-paying jobs,” Daines said. “With this contract award, Montana will have the support we need to engage bioscience entrepreneurs and offer support and develop partnerships to showcase what Montana can accomplish in the bioscience space.”

Grant Kier, executive director of Missoula Economic Partnership, said in a statement that talent development is “crucial” for the community and economy to thrive.

“This initiative affords us the opportunity to develop a talent program using bioscience as a model, and we look forward to working collaboratively with industry leaders in order to do so,” he said.

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