MISSOULA — Community leaders looking to reinvent Missoula after the collapse of the timber industry may have found the next big thing — a small but growing network of companies rooted in big data and emerging Internet technologies.
Entrepreneurs behind Missoula’s network of high-tech start-ups, supported by backers of a new program at the University of Montana and investors looking to sponsor the future, see potential in Missoula as a technology hub of the Northern Rockies.
On a quiet weekday afternoon, employees at TerraEchos sat before their monitors, working to predict cyberattacks using proprietary software. Across town, employees at GCS Research kept busy developing next-generation Geographic Information Systems and remote-sensing applications.
Both companies have grown since they were founded in Missoula, and both firms look to expand in the years ahead. But their plans for growth may hinge upon cultivating a local pool of talented workers educated on the cutting edge of mathematics, computer science and information systems.
“It’s very hard to find people who have the talents we need,” said Whitney Hepp, director of marketing and operations at TerraEchos. “Supporting the university is like creating a pool within our community to attract these students, keep them here and grow this technology center right in Missoula.”
TerraEchos is one of Missoula’s fastest growing tech firms. It processes, correlates and analyzes moving data in real time, and it acts upon that data in the moment. Hepp calls it the “speed of now” and says the need to read large amounts of data, as it passes, is in high demand.
The company moved to its new downtown location on Spruce Street in January and now employs 11 workers. Nine of Terra’s 11 employees are UM graduates, or have ties to the school.
“We had a three- to five-year plan to double our staff every year,” said Misti James, Terra’s chief operating officer. “We hit that target this year, going from five to 11. We plan on going from 11 to 20 next year, and 20 to 40 after that.”
Alex Philp, founder and president of GCS Research, recognized the shortage of skilled workers early on. He urged UM to launch a course on IBM’s InfoSphere Streams software and has been a staunch advocate for growing the program ever since.
Last fall, with funding in place, UM became the first university in the world to offer the IBM course at the undergraduate level. In doing so, it garnered national attention from tech bloggers and data watchdogs. It also laid the groundwork for what supporters see as Missoula’s future as a tech center.
“It’s putting Missoula on an international map as a world leader in information technology,” said Philp. “If we don’t stay ahead, other universities and other communities will catch up. We need to give these resources to students. They’re hungry for this kind of stuff.”
UM expanded the Streams course this spring and opened the class to new disciplines. Three departments are now looking to join forces in launching a new Big Data Program at the university, with some pushing for a full degree program.
Eric Tangedahl, director of information systems technology in the School of Business Administration, is co-teaching the Streams program this semester with Brian Steele, an associate professor of mathematics. The programs are working with other departments at UM to expand the university’s big-data offerings, and they may gear additional courses toward the subject.
“It’s not one person solving these problems – it’s a skill set coming together,” said Tangedahl. “Everyone is saying this is a big area. They tend to say there won’t be enough people to fill these jobs.”
A survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review echoed those concerns. Nearly three out of every four tech firms surveyed planned to hire in the field, but reported that finding qualified employees was “challenging” to “very difficult.”