Blue Marble Rolls Ahead
Company maps a path through Partnership’s programs
As its name implies, Blue Marble Biomaterials is all about embracing the concerns of our world ecosystem while producing high-value industrial products. So it is only fitting that the company, named in part after the famous “blue marble” photograph of the Earth from outer space, also serves as the most comprehensive case study of the ecosystem of interconnected programs and services offered by the Missoula Economic Partnership.
In fact, Blue Marble’s leaders said they wouldn’t be where they are today summer of 2012 without the help of the Partnership.
“It’s been fascinating what this community has done through (Missoula Economic Partnership) to help with what we’re building,” said Colby Underwood, who runs the company together with founder James Stephens. “They’ve come behind us and offered us a level of support that I’ve not heard of from other companies out there in other places.
“That’s why we want to stay here — besides the fly-fishing, at least.”
No doubt, fly-fishing was one of the reasons that Montana showed up on Underwood’s radar back in 2009 when he and Stephens began looking for a permanent home for Blue Marble. At the time, the company operated out of a pilot facility in Seattle, where Stephens had streamlined a process to extract high-value flavorings and fragrances out of waste products such as coffee grounds.
Stephens, too, had a connection to Missoula: He graduated from The University of Montana with degrees in microbiology and medical technology.
But for the two businessmen, personal connections and extra-professional interests mattered far less than cold logic as they went about the process of finding a new home.
In August 2011, Blue Marble was a company of four. Today it employs 19, with a goal of 99 employees within 12 months. “We need the help of everyone to succeed. It does take a village, a town like Missoula to get behind us.”
– Colby Underwood, co-CEO, Blue Marble Biomaterials
“We looked at Chicago, New Jersey, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado — all the places known for clean-tech companies,” Stephens said. “But when we did the whole match-out, Montana tied directly with Colorado. And when we approached the state government, Montana was incredibly accommodating and friendly. Colorado wasn’t as aggressive getting us; so Montana ended up making the best business sense.”
In August 2011, Blue Marble officially turned on its processing facility on Alloy South at Expressway Boulevard near the Missoula International Airport. At the time it was a company of four. Today, Blue Marble employs 19.
Much of that quick expansion was made possible through help from the Partnership, which connected Blue Marble to on-the-job training funds offered by the Missoula Job Service, Stephens said.
“Early on, when we were particularly budget conscious, we were able to hire three or four extra people that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford right away,” he said. “Those people can now take leadership roles and train new people in. So that has benefited us greatly both then and now.”
Perhaps even more critical to Blue Marble’s quick ramp up was the Partnership’s help coordinating regulating agencies around the company’s pioneering work.
“Brigitta (Miranda-Freer, the Partnership’s business development director) was able to get 25-plus regulators in one room for one meeting so we were able to talk about sites, expansion, where our hurdles will be,” Stephens said. “That was huge in getting us going on the right foot.”
When Stephens saw an opportunity to learn about and connect with the fragrance industry by attending a trade show in Las Vegas, the Partnership pointed him to incumbent worker training dollars — state money to help existing employees expand their skills — to help pay for the trip.
But the biggest fruit was yet to fall. In April of this year, 2012, Blue Marble was invited to participate in the first pitch session of the MEP Angel Network, a program the Partnership created to connect entrepreneurs with capital investments. After presenting its business case, Blue Marble received a significant infusion of cash from one of the participating investors; a second is currently in due diligence and considering an investment.
Missoula Economic Partnership is now in the process of helping the company expand its capital resources and speed its growth through grants and loans from the Big Sky Trust Fund, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Montana Board of Investments.
While creating that customized financing package is time-consuming for the Partnership, the effort has obvious value for Missoula’s economy, said Miranda-Freer.
“We have great minds and entrepreneurs here,” she said, “but when they have to go outside of Missoula for funding, there go those companies — because the investors dictate where the companies are. Colby and James want to be here but they needed to see investment from the community. So it was really important that we were able to bring that kind of investment to the table.”
Underwood echoed that sentiment.
“We need the help of everyone to succeed,” he said noting that his company intends to speed its growth in the coming year, with a target of 99 employees within 12 months. “To do that, it does take a village, a town like Missoula to get behind us.”
“We’re finding that through the Missoula Economic Partnership,” Stephens added. “We have nothing but good things to say about that relationship.”