Missoula Current: Daines, Gianforte look to nurture Montana’s high-tech growth, entrepreneurs

Back in the 1970s when Steve Daines was on a family trip to Disneyland, a woman asked him about life back home. Her impression of Montana was stereotypical at best – a third-world state far removed from economic prosperity.

Kicking off the Montana High Tech Jobs Summit on Monday, Daines, now a U.S. senator representing the state, said times have changed. Technology has removed the barriers of geography, and Montana’s booming tech sector competes at the enterprise level with the world’s top firms.

“A few decades ago, virtually all technology companies were based in the infamous Silicon Valley, but there’s no reason why Missoula, Montana, can’t compete,” said Daines. “The way of life here is unmatched, and you don’t have to leave that way of life to get a good-paying job in Montana anymore.”

Joined by Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, and a panel of state and national tech leaders at the University of Montana, Daines painted a picture of a rapidly shifting economy.

It’s one that has seen Montana’s technology sector grow seven times faster than the statewide economy, with wages that pay twice the statewide average. New partnerships between private enterprise and the Montana University System have also turned out a new generation of workers skilled for today’s jobs.

“We all know technology is the future, and that future is here today,” Daines said. “Technology has removed geography as a constraint for doing business in Montana.”

Daines, along with Gianforte, credited the success of Right Now Technologies for kick-starting the state’s tech boom. Gianforte launched the business from his Bozeman home in 1997 with “$5,000 and a dream.”

Back then, the advent of the Internet created both the problem and the opportunity, Gianforte said. As companies migrated their business to the Internet, they weren’t equipped to handle the resulting problems – things like answering emails and building customer satisfaction in the digital age.

Right Now Technologies stepped in, becoming one of the nation’s first cloud-computing businesses. The company was purchased by Oracle in 2012, a $1.8 billion transaction that reshaped Bozeman’s economy and redirected that city’s prosperity.

Gianforte said the success of that transaction has since rippled across the state.

“I’m glad Oracle had to come to Montana to find cloud-computing expertise,” Gianforte said. “It shows you what that Montana work ethic can do when it’s combined with good leadership. Many of you hold that same potential in your business.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte launched Right Now Technologies from his Bozeman home in 1997 with “$5,000 and a dream.” It was sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2012, reshaping the state’s economy. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Over the past seven years, former Right Now employees have gone on to start at least 15 high-tech companies, further fueling the tech boom. The Montana High Tech Business Alliance now claims more than 300 technology firms that generate more than $1 billion in annual revenues.

But while Montana entrepreneurs and their tech-based endeavors are moving the needle, challenges remain. Many, including Pulsara CEO Cynthia Bradford Lencioni, believe that air transportation to and from the state puts local businesses at a disadvantage. The general lack of skilled workers also remains a barrier to scaling a business from Montana.

“Six years ago, there wasn’t a lot of technology acumen on the tips of the tongues of people walking around Missoula and Bozeman,” said Tom Stergios, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development for Advanced Technology Group in Missoula. “(Gianforte) changed that in Bozeman, and we’ve started to work with UM and local high schools here in Missoula to increase the technology acumen.”

Stergios said efforts to reach students in high school and train them in emerging technologies in college are paying off. Last week, a representative from SalesForce, one of ATG’s leading clients and a global expert in cloud computing, taught a course on the subject at UM.

From code schools to internships, Stergios said, the results are beginning to show.

“Right now, UM is one of only a handful of universities around the country with this kind of curriculum being taught,” Stergios said. “Now the students coming out of UM and Montana State University are second to none to any of the universities around the country.”

In the past, Gianforte said, Right Now Technologies took similar steps, subsidizing professor salaries at MSU to ensure they remained in the classroom. The firm also provided full scholarships to students.

The number of MSU students who’ve received a degree in computer science has grown 255 percent over the past five years. Computer science enrollment has nearly doubled from 280 to 500, Gianforte said.

“We have an obligation in the private sector to work with higher education to make sure these things happen,” Gianforte said. “High Tech is an emerging industry in Montana. It’s one that has the potential to create a brighter future for all Montanans.”

Daines said other efforts can be made to position the state’s new economy for prosperity. Among them, he named reforming the tax system. Panelists represented at the summit ranged from the president of Microsoft to the executive vice president of T-Mobile.

“Next week, the U.S. Senate will be taking on an issue of great importance for everyone here in this room, and that’s the issue of tax reform,” Daines said. “It ought to be called the American Jobs Act. This is how we enable America’s small business, its companies, to better compete in this global economy.”