Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Daines and Zinke Visit Local Tech Business

Montana’s U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Ryan Zinke met with a high-tech company Wednesday morning to discuss factors leading to economic growth in Bozeman.

The Republican lawmakers received a guided tour of FLIR Systems from Kevin Tucker, vice president of surveillance, and Randy Equall, vice president of laser systems and scientific materials.

The company was founded as Scientific Materials in 1989 by Ralph Hutcheson.

Hutcheson grew the synthetic ruby crystals used in the world’s first laser. Scientific Materials was bought by the Oregon-basd FLIR Systems in 2005, a company that specializes in thermal imaging cameras.

Today, FLIR has about 60 employees, many with degrees from Montana State University, Equall said.

“We have this great pipeline from MSU. It’s a great synergy,” he said.

New employees with a bachelor’s degree in engineering start with an annual salary around $50,000, about twice Bozeman’s per capita income, according to U.S. census data.

The Bozeman branch of FLIR, which has three facilities, grows synthetic crystals inside 4,000-degree kilns and then builds them into laser systems for customers in the medical, automotive and aerospace industries, including NASA.

The company also manufactures laser designators for use by the military to deliver guided-munitions to their targets, and range-finders for defense, homeland security and border protection agencies.

The lawmakers were shown a compact laser rangefinder about the size of a brick that could measure distances just over nine miles with an accuracy of about 3 feet.

Tucker explained that they were interested in the federal government increasing legal protections for their intellectual property, and doing more to stop cyber attacks from other nations.

The company expects to double its output, and hire more employees, over the next year, with about half of its growth driven by a 25 percent increase in international sales. Daines asked which countries were buying.

“The Middle East, hands down,” Tucker said. “But higher technology products go into the U.S. market first for a variety of reasons.”

Daines and Zinke were pleased to see and hear about the company’s success.

Daines asked if the company was under pressure to move away from Bozeman, and Zinke asked if a veto of the National Defense Authorization Act would affect the company’s growth.

The answer to both questions was no, not really.

“You couldn’t do this anywhere else,” Equall said.