Grunke column: A Silicon Valley of big data? It could be Missoula

In late July, together with The University of Montana and IBM, we announced a collaboration to bring the world’s first undergraduate course in IBM’s InfoSphere Streams technology to students at UM. The class, to be offered during the 2012 autumn semester, will immerse students in IBM’s groundbreaking system for processing and analyzing large quantities of data in real time.

What is exciting about this course isn’t simply that it is the first of its kind, but rather the potential impact it could have on Missoula’s entrepreneurial landscape in the coming years. By offering computer science, mathematics and business students an early exposure to some of the most advanced technology in the computing field today, we see a timely opportunity for Missoula to take a leading role in the “big data” processing industry of tomorrow.

It is an industry with exciting potential, growing at seven times the already healthy rate of the overall information technology market, according to analysts at International Data Corp. And it is an industry with no established market center; there is no Silicon Valley of Big Data. Yet.

That hub could be Missoula.

After all, we will soon have students graduating from our local university with hands-on experience in big data computing.

Just as important, Missoula is already home to one of the most cutting-edge players in big data analytics, TerraEchos — a company that IBM singled out with its prestigious 2012 Beacon Award.

Where one business succeeds, others can often find footing.

At Missoula Economic Partnership, that is the insight that drives our focus on so-called business clusters — interconnected, geographically concentrated groups of businesses and institutions in the same or similar field.

It is well known that such clusters foster innovation, stimulate new businesses and increase productivity. Proof can be found around the globe: in the computing industry of Silicon Valley, the film industry of Hollywood, the life sciences industry of Fargo, the electronics manufacturing industry of Guadalajara.

In Missoula, big data analytics is one potential business cluster, but hardly the only.

With about 60 pharmacy students graduating from UM each year — and with the existence of companies such as Rocky Mountain Biologicals and the GlaxoSmithKline facility in Hamilton — we see great potential in pharmaceutical wholesaling and drug manufacturing. That is why we threw our support behind the Missoula Vaccine Partnership, an effort that aims to draw and expand such businesses in this area.

Missoula has already become a cluster point for a broad category of advanced manufacturing businesses. Local companies such as CM Manufacturing, Nutritional Laboratories International, Paradise Dental Technologies and others have established world-class reputations for their precision manufacturing capabilities.

In the process, those companies have developed highly skilled workforces — an essential element in the establishment and expansion of any business cluster. After all, companies are hesitant to establish or relocate their business in a locale where they can’t find the right workers.

Missoula is truly blessed in this regard. Not only do we have a quality university in town supplying the labor pool with specialized workers; but also, skilled professionals around the country watch our local help-wanted ads because they want to move to this area for its quality of life. Our labor pool is, for most practical purposes, inexhaustible both in quality and quantity.

Not many communities can say that.

By fostering entrepreneurship and assisting established companies in target clusters, we see a powerful opportunity to keep our most talented workers at home in Western Montana, to attract the best and brightest from elsewhere and to ultimately enhance opportunity across the region.

This column by James Grunke, CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership, originally appeared in the August 28, 2012 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

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