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Chris Dimock sees a bright economic future for Billings, and he's eager to give the city the push it needs to get there. 

He and a handful of others from around the state have organized a group that plans to meet quarterly in Billings, where potential investors can gather and hear pitches from upstarts with new ideas. 

"There's a hole in the Billings economy where innovation should be," Dimock said. 

It was that desire that connected Dimock, who runs a firm dedicated to improving healthcare and business leadership performance called Elation, with Pat LaPointe, managing director of the investment group Frontier Angels. Both saw the need to help spur innovation in the region. 

Frontier Angels is a Montana-based group of specialized financial risk-takers known as angel investors — individuals who invest significant amounts of money in startups and ideas that are typically still on the drawing board. 

Dimock refers to these types of start-ups as "early-stage innovation" groups and companies. The term "angel investor" came about because these start-ups usually are risky investments. 

"Super risky," LaPointe said. 

Statistically, eight out of 10 of these early-stage innovation companies fail, he said. But they attract investors because the handful who do become successful do so in a big way. 

And angel investors, by committing capital to these ideas at the ground floor, are typically given ownership equity in return for their investment and so earn enormous returns when the company takes off. 

"Right now if you've got an idea you go to Bozeman or Missoula," Dimock said. "We should be the home for innovation around things like agriculture, petrochemical and healthcare."

But in order for innovation like that to take off in Billings, the city needs an ecosystem that's conducive to that type of investment, Dimock said. That starts with a mature and established network of angel investors, which then attracts venture capital to the region. 

Along with that, the city needs infrastructure to support the fledgling start-ups. LaPointe pointed to the new entrepreneurial work space being built in partnership with Big Sky Economic Development, Montana State University Billings, Rocky Mountain College and Bozeman-based Zoot Enterprises. 

The work space will fill that need, Dimock said, serving as a hub for local entrepreneurs who need access to resources and professional support as they build their businesses. 

The entrepreneurial work space is still in the planning and design stage. The location and design of the center will be determined in the coming months with a final plan expected by April.

In the meantime, Frontier Angels will meet with its first group of potential investors Wednesday to pitch the idea of jump-starting innovation in Billings. LaPointe is optimistic. 

When he relaunched Frontier Angels in October he had no formal investors signed up. He now has 65 across the state. For Wednesday's meeting in Billings, Dimock and LaPointe have 25 people who plan to attend. 

The 25 attending, and the 65 who already belong to Frontier Angels, walk in rarefied air. In order to participate, they are required to be SEC-accredited investors, which means they have $1 million in net worth, excluding the value of their primary residence, or $200,000 in income if filing individually, $300,000 if filing jointly, for each of the prior two years. 

On top of that, LaPointe said, his group seeks out investors who have experience. That way they join up clear-eyed about what they're getting into. But more importantly, they can leverage their experience to mentor the young entrepreneurs who are working to get their ideas and businesses off the ground. 

"That mentorship is as important as the money," LaPointe said. 

Both LaPointe and Dimock feel an urgency to get moving. Montana is years behind other states when it comes to this type of innovation, they said. 

"If we don't start now, we never get there," LaPointe said. 

"If we decide not to do things we're condemning ourselves to fall behind," Dimock said. 

The two men are looking specifically at technological innovation. 

Billings is a town of entrepreneurs, Dimock said. But the businesses that start up here tend to be restaurants and shops, which is great, he said. 

"But at some point you need to have the occasional Amazon or Google or Zappos to go with all the stores and restaurants," he said. 

Frontier Angels was relaunched last year with the express purpose of "accelerating the tech ecosystem" in the state, LaPointe said. 

The timing is right. The University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research released a study this week that showed high-tech companies in Montana in 2017 generated revenue nine times faster than the statewide economy. In all, they generated roughly $1.7 billion in revenue last year. 

It's the exclamation mark to the point LaPointe likes to make. The world is becoming increasingly friendly to technology and entrepreneurship. If Montanans don't push to bring innovation here, it'll go somewhere else. 

And it doesn't have to be that way. 

"We've got the experience and the mentors and the capital to do it," he said. 


Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.