Grunke column: UM research is key to economic growth

For Missoula’s economy to expand faster than broader economic growth rates, innovation and entrepreneurship must take the lead. That truism has been proven time and again in communities across America.

But in order to grow something fruitful, you first need a seed. Successful companies aren’t built on a founder’s desire to start a business; they’re built on solutions to problems. Where do those solutions come from? The best ones come from specific insights, from new discoveries. They come from research.

Here in Missoula, we benefit hugely from the research conducted at the University of Montana.

Most visibly, our community benefits from the spin off of new companies that have built business models around the results of original research. One of these companies, Rivertop Renewables, recently raised $26 million in venture financing to commence production of new chemicals targeted at consumer products and industrial markets. Other local companies built on the foundation of UM research include Bee Alert Technology, Purity Systems, Sunburst Sensors, Transsynaptic Technologies and GT NeuroPharma. There are more.

And beyond the obvious, there are other tangible impacts, subtler yet more pervasive, from research activity at UM.

Recently, Dr. Patrick Barkey of UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research undertook an effort to quantify the overall economic impact of research at the University. The study isn’t finished yet but the preliminary results already tell us much about the value of research on the Missoula campus.

The easiest number to pinpoint in the study is total research conducted at UM and funded by outside sources. In academic year 2012, the total was $58.5 million.

Those dollars supported 521 jobs at UM, and 876 statewide. Notably, we’re not just talking about the jobs of researchers themselves. Research funding disperses across the state through equipment purchases, support services and the like. So the research funds received by UM support 62 jobs in construction, 60 in retail trade, 49 in local government … the list goes on, impacting nearly every Montana industry.

What’s more, these are good jobs with average annual earnings of $65,109.

Those are powerful numbers. That’s why the Partnership and UM are working together to boost the impact of research even further.

An obvious way to increase the impact of scholarly research on our local economy is to draw more research dollars to the Missoula campus. We see strong efforts from the UM administration and all departments toward that end: Preliminary results for 2013 show an increase of total sponsored research to $60.1 million.

Meantime, a new focus on translating research to business opportunities has emerged under UM President Royce Engstrom and Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship. UM’s Office of Technology Transfer and Montana Technology Enterprise Center are actively working with UM researchers to build businesses around new discoveries. And in the first two months UM’s new Blackstone LaunchPad program, over 70 entrepreneurial students and alumni signed up for assistance with their business plans.

The Partnership also plays a significant role in the translation of research into companies. We are helping new businesses find funding via the MEP Angel Network, receive ongoing training through Innovation Initiative programs and make connections with the people, agencies and business partners who can help them succeed.

No one can predict whose laboratory will produce the next kernel of insight that leads to the next powerhouse business in Missoula. But with the Partnership and UM working together to identify and cultivate the most promising seeds, we will grow exciting things in the Garden City.

James Grunke is CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership. Please visit, bookmark and share the website at MissoulaPartnership.com.


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