Grunke column: Entrepreneurial Culture Taking Root in Missoula

In February 2014, the University of Montana will officially launch its new Blackstone LaunchPad program. Taken alone, this is big news for economic development in Missoula. I expect this program will be a powerful driver of economic activity in our region for years to come.

Modeled after a successful program at the University of Miami, LaunchPad exists to nurture entrepreneurship by providing a network of venture coaches and other support to students and, in the future, alumni of UM and Montana State University. LaunchPad aims to facilitate the creation of some 150 new businesses in Montana over the next five years.

One way that LaunchPad distinguishes itself from university entrepreneurship programs elsewhere is that it is open to all students, regardless of major. The idea is to foster a campuswide ethos of creativity and professional self-determination.

I often talk about the importance of developing a culture of entrepreneurship in Missoula. Toward that end, the launch of LaunchPad serves as a watershed moment in an even bigger story for Missoula.

We now have in place a full suite of locally based programs and resources to help people transform good ideas into great businesses. Moreover, through our work at the Partnership, those individual programs are now working together with unprecedented unity toward a common goal.

Many of those resources can be found on the UM campus.

For nearly a quarter century, the John Ruffatto Business Plan Competition has encouraged entrepreneurship by offering cash prizes, professional feedback and mentorship around student-developed business plans. UM’s Entrepreneurship Club and the Montana Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs both provide students with forums to connect with other entrepreneurs, peer expertise and resources.

For faculty, the Office of Technology Transfer serves as a liaison between UM’s research community and the private sector. And UM’s planned Gilkey Center for Executive Education will provide the off-campus business community with education in leadership, entrepreneurship and executive skills.

Off campus, the Hellgate Venture Network facilitates networking among entrepreneurs and advisers engaged in building growth businesses in the Missoula area. Two years ago, we partnered with HVN and the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC) to launch the Innovation Initiative, a series of programs presented by local business experts to help entrepreneurs and other professionals address key challenges in today’s business world.

For people who are ready to put their plans into action, MonTEC now serves high-growth-potential startups with office space, world-class Internet bandwidth and other resources. And the MEP Angel Network connects early-stage startups with a group of local investors who make capital investments of between $250,000 and $750,000.

As a result, our community is already developing a reputation as a hotbed of entrepreneurship.

Earlier this year, a study by the Kauffman Foundation found that among all U.S. metro areas, Missoula had the 13th highest density of communications and information technology startups in 2010. In a different study, Atlantic Cities found that Missoula ranks eighth nationally in per-capita density of venture capital deals.

In September, Missoula was highlighted in a feature story about emerging biotechnology clusters in Chemical & Engineering News. That story cited “a business environment that welcomes new startups” as contributing to the success of companies like Blue Marble Biomaterials, Rocky Mountain Biologicals and Rivertop Renewables.

All of that happened before Blackstone LaunchPad arrived in Missoula. With that program in place, and with all of us working together toward a shared vision, Missoula is poised for a new paradigm.

The only remaining question is, what will we make of it?

James Grunke is CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the December 29, 2013 edition of the Missoulian’s InBusiness Weekly. 


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