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Erik Johnston, seated, talks with U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., right, during a tour in October 2012 of the Montana Enterprise Technology Center in Missoula on Friday. Johnston is a research chemist for Rivertop Renewables, the anchor tenant for the business and technology incubator managed by the University of Montana.

Research aimed at product development could play an increased role at the University of Montana in coming years, as it strives to become a top-tier research institution and an economic driver for the region, the school’s new head of research said Wednesday.

Scott Whittenburg, hired last December as the vice president of research and creative scholarship, said UM will work to expand its research into areas that promise economic growth – a move that could bring new collaborations to western Montana, including funding, businesses and jobs.

“We’re already a research institution,” Whittenburg said. “But one of our goals is to increase the amount of research we do and try to become a top-tier, or Carnegie ‘research very high’ institution.”

Whittenburg said basic research must continue in such mainstays as disease, climate change and forest health. At the same time, the university will seek to increase its funding for projects that hold economic promise, from renewables to new pharmaceuticals.

This past year, UM received $60 million in research expenditures, a strong showing among many national schools. Whittenburg said the university ranks in the upper tier among “research high” institutions, though the goal is to become a “research very high” university – a ranking given to schools by the Carnegie Foundation.

“If we can get close to $100 million, that should put us into the top tier,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but we’ll work toward it.”


To achieve that goal, Whittenburg said UM created a new Proposal Development Office and hired a manager to seek external research funding, and to help researchers write stronger proposals.

He also anticipates continued support from the state of Montana. John Rodgers, Montana’s chief business officer and head of the governor’s Office of Economic Development, also is expected to meet with university officials this Friday.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also is working with UM while exploring the state’s potential as a technological hub. Some see Missoula as a possible “big data” center – IBM and the university have already collaborated on offering new programs.

In Missoula on Wednesday, Baucus announced that Google executive Eric Schmidt would head this year’s Montana Economic Development Summit.

“Baucus has worked well with us to identify for one of their panels some companies or a person to help grow certain businesses here in Missoula,” Whittenburg said. “If all the players get together and start pushing in the same direction, I think we’ll make an impact.”

This past month, the university landed several research grants, including $1.1 million from NASA to help scout for distant planets and $5 million from the Center for Biomedical Research Excellence to study cardio and pulmonary diseases.

Whittenburg hinted at two new awards coming soon within the College of Health Professionals and the biomedical sciences. He also noted the work of David Poulsen, a biomedical research professor who has developed a new drug of interest to the Department of Defense.

“It shows you’re starting to get into that area of translational research, when things are starting to become product oriented – applied research over basic research,” Whittenburg said. “It shows we’re moving up a little in the types of research we do.”


UM was on pace to surpass the $60 million mark in research expenditures last year until a cutback in federal research spending, coupled with sequestration, occurred.

But Whittenburg expects to see a rebound this year. He also envisions a day when businesses locate to Missoula and sponsor new research at the university – if not fund the facilities to carry it out.

Such a day, he said, may only be a few years off.

“There are research areas that make sense for companies to locate here,” he said. “We have existing strengths that will help us grow companies out of the students and faculty that are here.”

UM last year invested $3.5 million into MonTech to help new startups take root, including Rivertop Renewables, AIM GeoAnalytics and Mobile Minds, among others.

More recently, Whittenburg noted, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation provided $2 million to introduce entrepreneurship as a career option at UM, and to help students build viable companies.

“There’s a lot we can do in terms of research and economic development in the region, in both growing our own companies and encouraging companies from the outside to move here,” he said.

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at

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