Growing Montana one business at a time.
Economic growth is nothing more than the sum total of growth in businesses everywhere--in communities, as well as the state and the nation. And so strategies and policies that are aimed at producing economic growth must ultimately help businesses grow. How can we make that happen?
One way is to literally do just that--work with individual businesses and provide them with tools, knowledge, advice and support. It's happening in Montana as we speak. There are programs and resources around the state that provide a wide range of support, especially for startups and emerging businesses. Perhaps the best way to tell you about them is to recount the story of how one business grew. So let's meet Agile Data Solutions, a startup based in Missoula, as it navigates its way on the path to business success.
As many startups do, Agile Data Solutions sought to address a need. As a practicing attorney and University of Montana computer science professor, Joel Henry wanted to create a product that would reduce time and costs associated with the legal discovery process. And so what began as a UM research project conducted with students evolved into a desktop software solution that makes "conceptual searching" possible. The technology hunts through hundreds of thousands of documents and deduces the concept behind keywords (including misspellings and acronyms), saving small- and medium-sized law firms considerable time and money. When commercialization of the project became a distinct possibility, Henry turned to Montana Enterprise Center (MonTEC) for help.
Montana Enterprise Center (MonTEC)
Home to pioneering entrepreneurs, MonTEC is a technology incubator, providing space, internet access, conference rooms, and video conferencing to fledgling businesses. Whether a business is in need of interns, seed funding, or business mentoring, MonTEC is there to make connections. To make a start, Henry knew he would need a mentor, and MonTEC President Joe Fanguy took on that critical role.
Fanguy encouraged Henry to pursue commercialization and use MonTEC services to lay the groundwork. "We started at MonTEC as an affiliate, which means we didn't have an office, but we could use their rooms for meetings and video conferencing, as well as have a mailbox," said Henry. Having these facilities at his disposal simplified scheduling meetings with his collaborators. And when he was ready for an office, MonTEC offered low-cost space that included power and internet, so that he had one bottom-line payment a month.
When Agile Data Services joined MonTEC, it became part of a community of entrepreneurs. Its corridors are home to early business ventures that face similar hurdles, and the unique, incubator environment encourages people to share ideas and collaborate. When Henry was frustrated about the slow adoption rate of technology into the legal field and the unpredictability of sales month to month, he knocked on doors at MonTEC and asked for advice. Henry said, "When you move into MonTEC, you find you're not alone."
Still, starting a business involves a steep learning curve, as Henry soon discovered. So he turned to Blackstone LaunchPad as another resource to grow his business.
Blackstone LaunchPad (BLP-UM)
Blackstone LaunchPad is an international network of co-curricular and experiential campus programs designed to help drive economic development in communities with partnering universities, in an effort to increase the likelihood that students will remain in their communities to develop business initiatives. At the University of Montana, BLP helps all their clients turn ideas into real-world businesses and nonprofit corporations. Since opening in February 2014, as part of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation's Entrepreneurship Initiative, the BLP has met with more than 500 people interested in receiving individualized coaching, ideation, and venture-creation support.
When Agile Data Solutions was still in its infancy, Henry used BLP services often. BLP-UM Director Paul Gladen connected Henry with several UM business professors who provided their time and expertise to guide Henry through the complexities of raising capital and marketing high-tech. These mentors were specifically selected to avoid conflicts of interest with his developing business, and confidentiality in their discussions was always respected.
It is BLP's belief that to nurture start-up ideas, guidance and empowerment are the keys to success. BLP provides the resources and networking, but it is up to the entrepreneur to make the decisions. And Henry agrees. In addition to the support he received from MonTAC, Henry maintains that BLP was instrumental in assisting him in the decision to turn Agile Data Solutions into a viable, commercial enterprise.
The Montana World Trade Center (MWTC)
Most entrepreneurs like Henry soon realize that domestic sales are only one side of the monetary coin. Businesses that export experience faster sales growth and ride out fluctuations in the U.S. economy better than their non-exporting counterparts. According to the International Trade Administration, more than 70 percent of the world's purchasing power is located outside of the U.S. What is less known, however, is that exporting can provide a business with market intelligence that can inform further product development. Unfortunately, only a handful of Montana businesses can support dedicated international departments. That's where the Montana World Trade Center (MWTC) comes in.
"Our goal is to prepare companies and to maximize their probability of success in completing international business transactions," said MWTC Executive Director Brigitta Miranda-Freer.
Henry acknowledges that he would have struggled to make his Canadian contacts without the help MWTC provided. "The Montana World Trade Center has been instrumental in opening a new market for Agile Data Solutions in Canada," he said. Moreover, key strategic information from MWTC allowed him to leverage the subsequent meetings.
In addition to its client services, MWTC also coordinates annual trade missions, during which it takes Montana businesses into foreign markets and arranges high-level meetings and briefings designed to maximize the probably of closing business deals. MWTC works with mission participants months in advance, to prepare them to be informed and confident in-country.
Henry, who accompanied MWTC on its most recent trade mission to Canada in June, was able to deploy his demos during this trip, and he returned to Canada again in July to plan his first pilot project with Alberta Energy Regulators (AER), which will begin in January 2016. And, according to Henry, that is not all that MWTC has to offer his business. "We know MWTC will be there for us as we follow up on contracts and explore new markets abroad."
Tapping international markets for sales can lead to domestic sales strategies as well. Thanks to his experiences in Canada, Henry is now in discussions with a U.S. governmental agency to perform the same kind of data file search services Canadian energy companies are using. This expansion into another vertical market is an exciting opportunity for Agile Data Solutions, and MWTC helped make it happen.
"What an excellent resource for businesses across our state," Henry said.
Montana Procurement Technical Assistance (PTAC)
What's next for Agile Data Services? Henry says present goals include wider distribution of its software, to demonstrate its use in vertical markets outside of law. And he is making headway. In addition to AER and Enmax, an energy supplier in Canada, Agile Data Services has garnered interest from U.S. governmental entities about using its product for Freedom of Information Act requests. This opportunity arrives with an unexpected snag: government contracts can be thorny to navigate.
Enter the Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). Its mission is to educate and increase economic development in Montana by providing counseling and technical assistance to businesses interested in federal, state and local government contracting. The best part? Because it is funded by the University of Montana and a cooperative agreement with the Defense Logistics Agency, its services are free.
"The government wants to shop local," said Montana PTAC Government Contracting Advisor Patty Cox. "Montana PTAC can help you connect to these buyers."
According to usaspending.gov, Montana businesses received more than $484.5 million in federal contract awards in 2015. Montana PTAC's service extends beyond these awards, however, by helping businesses secure bonding, submit invoices, and understand government contract administration. Montana PTAC demystifies the process of complex government agreements and helps businesses navigate the government marketplace.
Henry is looking forward to this next step and is meeting with Montana PTAC the first week in January. "I see Montana PTAC as instrumental in helping with my government contracts."
It Takes a Village
Any new enterprise should consult the Small Business Development Center Network, maintained by the Montana Department of Commerce. This network helps businesses prepare or fine-tune their business plans, as well as provide assistance in financial management, operations, loan applications, and marketing initiatives. With nine locations around the state, it's another great resource for Montana business owners like Henry.
But growing Montana businesses isn't just good for Montana business owners. It's good for Montana. "Retaining and growing companies in-state often yields a much higher return on investment than bringing them in," Miranda-Freer said. "They already know they want to be here. They already understand quality of life here. Some may just need a bit of assistance in helping their businesses to thrive here."
As one of those business owners, Henry is seeing the rewards of commercializing a high-quality product in Montana. "The most rewarding thing for me--I'm an engineer at heart--has been to see our software in the hands of a user," Henry said. "Our software changes their job and removes challenges and frustrations, which makes them so much more efficient and productive."
And as we've seen, Henry didn't have to do it alone. As Miranda-Freer observes, Montana is a state where opportunities exist to engage one-on-one with people who want to help your business grow.
Henry agrees. "From my standpoint, it's just absolutely amazing how many different individuals and groups have been very, very willing to sit down and work with me."
Sometimes growing a business takes a village. And in Montana, that village you need exists.
For more information about Henry and Agile Data Solutions, visit agileds.net.
Blackstone LaunchPad (BLP-UM): Get Started Here
Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana helps UM students, alumni, faculty, and staff, turn ideas into business reality. BLP-UM is part of an international network of co-curricular and experiential campus programs on more than 15 campuses in six regions countrywide, introducing entrepreneurship as a viable career path and helping develop entrepreneurial skills by individualized coaching, ideation, and venture-creation support. Many of these entrepreneurs are students. BLP helps foster their skills by holding events such as the Fall Startup Pitch Competition. Evin Oser, a BLP client and co-founder of Montana Root Applications along with Ryan Duarte and Brad Bahls, took home its top prize of $1,500 for a SolarScreen.co app. Another event BLP was proud to host was Missoula's first annual InnovateHER business pitch competition, which promotes products and services benefiting women and their families.
In 2015, prize money for these competitions totaled more than $50,000, and BLP-UM is looking forward to more events, including the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge. Pitch competitions are excellent opportunities for budding entrepreneurs to not only gain experience writing business plans and pitching their businesses, but also to earn money toward their start-ups.
In addition to competitions, BLP-UM also provides early feedback for start-ups and identifies target audiences and business partners. Regular services include one-on-one consultations, value proposition design workshops, and sessions informing entrepreneurs about legal considerations. BLP-UM engages speakers as well, to address topics such as trademarks, angel investing, and marketing.
For more information, go to www.umt.edu/launchpad.
Montana Enterprise Center(MonTEC): Find A Home
Agile Data services is part of a community of entrepreneurs with early-stage support from MonTEC, a UM-affiliated enterprise that houses new companies, with over a hundred people on site. As a group, they have raised more than $30 million in private investment in the last three years.
MonTEC has assisted many successful businesses that have emerged, thanks to research discoveries aimed at changing the world. Sunburst Sensors, for example, competed with 24 teams from around the world for two years in the XPRIZE for ocean health. It took home both grand prizes for pH sensors for studying ocean acidification and deep-sea testing off Hawaii, receiving $750,000 total in awards. Like Agile Data Solutions, the core technology was developed in a UM lab, and now the company is the base for a flourishing Montana business with recognition around the world.
Another success story is Rivertop Renewables. Rivertop has commercialized technology that can produce sustainable, high-performing, and renewable chemicals from natural sugars. The company currently develops products for the detergent and petroleum industries--$2 billion markets seeking replacement chemicals that fulfill price, performance, and sustainability mandates.
These companies and others all enjoy a professional working environment at MonTEC, which provides 1 GB internet access, small and large conference rooms, and video conferencing. Start-up businesses have access to mentors, interns, and seed funding information. And high-quality connections can be made here as well, because MonTEC maintains partnerships with UM's Blackstone LaunchPad, the Bitterroot Economic Development District, and the Montana High Tech Alliance.
For more information, go to www.montanaenterprisecenter.com.
The Montana World Trade Center (MWTC): Connect Globally, Prosper Locally
The World Trade Centers Association is a not-for-profit corporation that encourages world trade and promotes international business relationships. In 91 countries across the globe, there are 327 World Trade Centers engaging in hands-on activities with the tagline, "We grow trade." Montana's own branch, the MWTC, is located in Missoula, specializing in day-today business counseling regarding international markets. Housed at the University of Montana, MWTC has served for nearly two decades as a trusted advisor for businesses wanting to connect globally and prosper locally.
Among its many services, MWTC helps Montana businesses and entrepreneurs build or carry out international strategies, providing clients with actionable information, prescriptive export strategies, long-term strategic guidance, international market evaluation, and project management--in other words, it helps you get your goods and services to diverse markets, from Argentina to the United Kingdom. In 2015 alone, MWTC assisted nearly 70 businesses with their international trade endeavors, Agile Data Solutions among them.
Other MWTC services include a growing library of online export training courses on topics such as mitigating payment risk and international commercial terms, known as Incoterms. Membership in the MWTC is also available, which includes benefits such as export/import readiness assessments, discounted online classes, and priority participation in trade missions and other MWTC events. A targeted trade lead program is also planned for 2016.
Even more unique, however, are the unparalleled opportunities MWTC provides to students. As one of only two World Trade Centers in the country housed in a university, MWTC is proud to now offer a practicum for UM students, allowing them to combine hands-on export research for Montana businesses with classwork on export fundamentals such as prioritizing market opportunities, finding and qualifying distributors, completing basic trade documents, getting paid, and obtaining funding to help companies achieve export goals. During the past fall semester, for example, students prepared materials for various trade delegates participating in Governor Steve Bullock's trade mission to Taiwan and South Korea.
For more information, go to www.mwtc.org
Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC): Land a Deal with Uncle Sam
Montana PTAC's mission is to educate and increase economic development in Montana by providing counseling and technical assistance to businesses interested in federal, state, and local government contracting. Its nine centers across the state are located in Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell, Missoula, Butte, Great Falls, Hamilton, Lewistown and Ronan.
Montana PTAC works in partnership with companies, federal agencies, and economic development organizations to ensure Montana's small businesses are represented in the government marketplace. It helps businesses determine whether government contracting is suitable for them, provides guidance in understanding agencies' buying trends, and teaches businesses how to research target markets. Montana PTAC also provides technical assistance to help businesses register at the online portals required for bidding, such as the federal System for Award Management (SAM) and the State of Montana's vendor portal eMACS. Services also include review and evaluation of bids and proposals, and the program offers one-on-one counseling, phone consultations, and training workshops.
For more information, go to www.montanaptac.org
by Missy Lacock, with contributions by Olivia Carney, Joe Fanguy, and Patty Cox
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|Comment:||Growing Montana one business at a time.|
|Author:||Lacock, Missy; Carney, Olivia; Fanguy, Joe; Cox, Patty|
|Publication:||Montana Business Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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