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"Montana on the Rise" summit in Bozeman highlights state's high-tech economy

Montana on the Rise Economic Summit
Posted at 5:28 PM, Jun 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-02 19:28:42-04

BOZEMAN — On Thursday, hundreds of people gathered in Bozeman to hear stories highlighting the growth and opportunities in Montana’s high-tech industries.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and the Montana Chamber Foundation sponsored the “Montana on the Rise Economic Summit.” Dozens of business leaders – from Montana and beyond – delivered their thoughts on the future of high-tech industries from software to manufacturing to biotechnology, and what Montana can do to keep attracting them.

“The state of Montana is growing; there’s some fantastic things going on around the state,” said Scott Sehnert, from First Security Bank.

Daines said high-tech jobs are going to be an important part of the state’s economy going forward.

“Montana needs more high-paying jobs with great benefits,” he said. “These tech jobs are ways we can take our graduates from our universities here in Montana and keep them here contributing to this innovation economy, rather than exporting our kids.”

The businesses represented at the summit included financial firms in Helena, research and development in Bozeman and vaccine producers in the Bitterroot Valley. All were impressed with everything Montana has to offer.

“There’s a set of like-minded people, there’s educational institutions, there’s a workforce. Now, Montana has that, but it also is a beautiful, beautiful place to live, which is a phenomenal draw,” said Al Thompson, vice president of strategy and transformation for GlaxoSmithKline. The pharmaceutical giant has invested $100 million to expand its Hamilton plant, where they manufacture key components for vaccines.

“I think Montana figured out long ago what we’re just figuring out today – I think it took something like COVID for us to figure that out, and that’s the work-life balance,” said William Tanona, senior vice president of corporate development and investor relations for SoFi. “When we opened up our office here, what was important for the people was that they wanted to have this lifestyle.”

SoFi, an online financial services company, has more than 100 engineering and product employees in Helena. Tanona said their Montana offices see some of the lowest turnover in the company.

While many of these high-tech firms have been locating near each other in “hubs,” Daines said the impact can go much farther.

“The good news: this is statewide, and that’ll be an important part of the growth of this economy in Montana,” he said. “Technology has removed geography as a constraint, so we can now do these kinds of high-tech jobs anywhere in Montana.”

The summit’s keynote speaker was Kevin O’Leary, a prominent entrepreneur and investor known for the TV show Shark Tank. He said there’s a growing competition between states to attract businesses, and that Montana has the type of business-friendly climate he looks for.

“Where else can we find leadership that likes business, that doesn’t hate it, that wants to attract it, that has policy that’s competitive?” he said.

To that end, Bitzero, a company O’Leary’s a major investor in, announced at the summit that it’s planning to develop a new data center near Polson, in partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. One of the main attractions was access to reliable, clean hydropower from Kerr Dam – now managed by the tribes and called the SKQ Dam.

O’Leary called data “the new oil,” saying all aspects of the modern economy rely on it. He said Montana stands out as a good place to develop data centers, because of its readily available hydropower and its favorable business environment.

“You need data centers, and there’s no reason Montana can’t emerge as a leader in this,” he said. “It’s safe, it’s stable, it’s the kind of place where people want their data stored.”

Bitzero CEO Akbar Shamji told reporters they plan to initially build a 12-megawatt data center, powered through a combination of hydropower and other renewable sources. They then plan to expand it, with the initial target being 48 megawatts.

Speakers at the summit said, for Montana to keep attracting high-tech companies, the state needs to focus on developing infrastructure and continuing to invest in education. They also highlighted the ongoing need for housing.

Bill Moseley is CEO of GL Solutions, a software company that recently relocated its headquarters from Bend, Oregon, to Kalispell, said too many communities pursue “growth at any cost.”

“Think about the holistic perspective of your community, so you can preserve both the things that are causing you to be great now and carry that forward into your future,” he said. “When you get housing prices that go into the $700,000, $800,000s, you have to start thinking about what happens to people who are on fixed incomes, for instance.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte acknowledged the challenge of striking that balance.

“Our marching orders that I’ve gotten from you all are, 1: more good-paying jobs – we’re doing that – but the second one is just as important: protect our way of life,” he said.