“There is huge momentum in high-tech development in our state. It’s incredible to see how many people are working together to grow this industry–fast. It’s like an avalanche that can’t be stopped.”
– Sherri Davidoff, founder of LMG Security
I watched a documentary recently called “Muscle Shoals” that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
It tells the story of a music producer named Rick Hill who builta world-famous recording studio, FAME Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Hill turned his rural hometown (pop. 13,000) into a mecca for iconic musicians including Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Simon and Garfunkel, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones.
Rick Hill didn’t pick up and move to LA or New York where all the action was. He stayed in Alabama and focused on mastering his craft, producing Grammy-winning albums and turning local musicians into the best rhythm section in the country. Hill developed a reputation for making hit records and the industry came to him.
Montana high tech companies do the same thing. They stay where they are and focus on being the best in the industry at what they do. They are so good their customers come to them based on word-of-mouth and reputation.
Out of many examples in the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, here are two:
LMG Security, Missoula
Sherri Davidoff was lured into a complex field by a very simple offer. Back in 2000, she responded to an ad looking for MIT students who wanted to “stay up late and eat pizza.”
That ad turned out to be for MIT’s brand-new Network Security Team, and Davidoff ultimately became the team’s lead incident handler and completed an undergraduate project on network visibility. She graduated from MIT in 2003 with her degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering and a passion for bleeding-edge cybersecurity research.
Davidoff started her career on the east coast and then brought her expertise to Missoula, Montana in 2008 where she founded LMG Security, a research, education, and consulting firm. In her words, their job is to “break into banks and write reports about it.”
If a company gets hacked, they also call LMG to “handle the investigation, get them cleaned up, and then get to the root of the problem to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.” LMG’s global clients include government agencies, health care organizations, and Fortune 500 companies.
Davidoff is enthusiastic about her decision to locate her company in Missoula. “Montana is a great place to start a small high-tech business,” she said. “Here we have affordable office space, a trained labor force, and strong community support for high-tech initiatives. Thanks to the Internet, LMG’s staff can live in a gorgeous place and at the same time provide world-class cybersecurity services to an international market.”
Since its launch, LMG Security has has maintained steady growth and a constant push for innovation. The company’s speciality is Network Forensics, and Davidoff has literally written the world’s first textbook on the subject. She co-authored “Network Forensics: Tracking Hackers Through Cyberspace” (Prentice Hall, 2012).
In the early days, LMG invested $1,500 to build a “Play Lab,” a space where staff can experiment with malware and practice penetration testing. LMG created a suite of Network Forensics Puzzles, which then became the basis of a class Davidoff taught for industry knowledge centers like SANS and Black Hat. The team used the lab to develop a game-changing system to detect malware on mobile phones that that was featured in Wired Magazine in 2013.
Davidoff is now helping to train the next generation of information security professionals and put Missoula on the map as a center of cybersecurity research. LMG is one of the founding sponsors of the new Cyber Innovation Lab at the University of Montana, along with the Washington Corporations and Alliance members ALPS and GCS Research.
LMG also sponsored a statewide Cyber Triathlon at the UM in the Spring and Davidoff will be teaching the first Introduction to Cybersecurity class through the UM Computer Science Department this Fall.
LMG currently has 14 employees and is very focused on hiring and training local talent. According to Davidoff, interns from the University of Montana have been critical to LMG’s growth.
“UM students are bright, motivated, and thirsty to learn more technical skills,” she said. “I’ve always been impressed at how quickly our interns ramp up and become contributing members of the team. LMG would not be what it is today without them.”
And of course, Sherri Davidoff knows exactly what to put in an ad to attract the right students.
Advanced Electronic Designs, Bozeman
Bryan Robertus almost became a professional musician. Raised in Edgar, Montana south of Billings, he trained as a classical clarinetist and was ranked number five nationally in high school.
Robertus ultimately chose to channel his creativity into Electrical Engineering, earning a degree from Montana State University in 1989. (He still plays the saxophone in jazz bands as a hobby.)
After gaining a few years of work experience, Robertus launched his own company, Advanced Electronic Designs (AED), in his basement in Bozeman in 1994. “I really enjoyed the area and decided this is where I wanted to stay,” Robertus said.
Staying in Montana hasn’t hindered his creativity or his career. Bryan Robertus is a co-inventor on four U.S. patents. In 2013 he was inducted into MSU’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni and named Innovator of the Year by Prospera Business Network.
Though AED’s engineers work on a wide variety of projects spanning multiple industries, the company has carved out a niche in multimedia LED displays. AED designed more than 70 percent of the LED signs in Times Square in NYC, including ABC Studios, Disney Store, Walgreens, and NBC’s Today Show. The team also worked on a controller used by George Lucas to edit the Star Wars Trilogy.
Rather than pursuing growth for its own sake, the founder’s goal has been “providing opportunity to pursue our passion of engineering.” Today AED has 15 employees, all MSU alumni. Robertus fosters an atmosphere of fun with tongue-in-cheek demotivational posters on the walls and a website crafted to let his team’s personalities (and love for Legos) shine through. “The day someone walks into the office and says they hate their job, we’re doing something terribly wrong,” Robertus said.
AED is invested in the Bozeman community. Robertus serves on the advisory board for MSU’s electrical and computer engineering department and sponsors student projects. He and his engineers coach kids on FIRST Robotics Teams, some in national competitions. His staff serve on numerous advisory boards and engage in mentorship activities.
Robertus encounters other Montana companies that have no idea AED exists, let alone what it does. “Statewide, people don’t realize the level of competency and expertise we have in Montana,” Robertus said.
He’s right. As a state, we don’t know our own strength. Many of our best success stories are well-kept secrets within Montana, though these companies are heroes to their customers around the globe.
Aspiring entrepreneurs should know that what matters most in business – making products people want, doing good work, serving customers well – can be delivered from where you want to live. Technology has removed barriers of geography.
Doing business in Montana has its own advantages. Chief among them is the recent growth of Montana’s high tech sector. As Sherri Davidoff noted, “There is huge momentum in high-tech development in our state. It’s incredible to see how many people are working together to grow this industry–fast. It’s like an avalanche that can’t be stopped.”
If you’re in Montana, stay. If you want to be in Montana, come. Focus on mastering your craft and building world-class talent. If you’re good enough, they’ll come to you.
Christina Henderson, Executive Director
Photo Credit: Todd Goodrich, University of Montana. Caption: Sherri Davidoff, founder of LMG Security, coaches teams at the First Annual Montana Cyber Triathlon held at the UM on May 3, 2014.