This article was originally published on MakeMontanaHome.org.
By Alexandria Klapmeier
In 2012, a report from Regional Technology Strategies identified a quickly growing cluster of optics and photonics companies and research institutions in Montana. According to this report, the cluster of more than 25 organizations were the highest per capita concentration of optics and photonics companies and research institutions in Montana. Many of these organizations are located in Bozeman, thanks to a strong program at Montana State University.
As the photonics industry in Bozeman grows, one of the companies making headlines recently is Blackmore Lidar Sensors.
Seeing the Future in Bozeman
Blackmore Lidar Sensors was founded in 2016. According to Stephen Crouch, a co-founder of Chief Technical Officer, Blackmore in its simplest form makes 3D imaging devices that can be used in a variety of ways. They are primarily focused on the automotive industry and defense uses, but Blackmore’s technology can be used in other ways such as mapping.
“We had an opportunity to visit Big Sky and went to the top of Lone Peak with a sensor and looked at the glacier on Lone Peak,” Crouch said. “There are a variety of things the technology can do. We can make 3D maps where it is traditionally difficult to deploy lidar technology without taking a huge amount of time. Or without having to put somebody in an unsafe situation.”
But Blackmore’s technology has a big focus on the auto industry, specifically with autonomous or self-driving cars. Some of the company’s investors include BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures.
“They are the eyeballs,” Crouch said when talking specifically about their technology in autonomous vehicles. “The sensors scan laser beams around the vehicle and that is what builds the 3D image of the surroundings. The measurement approach Blackmore has developed is unique in that it is the only technology that also senses velocity. There are many companies in lidar, but velocity is unique to us.”
Since its formation, Blackmore has racked up several different awards. In 2017, the company was named the Innovator of the Year from the Montana Ambassadors program and was also recognized by the Prospera Business Network as the Innovator of the Year. At the beginning of February, Blackmore received the Prism Award for Photonics Innovation in the transportation category.
“The Prism Award recognizes new optics and photonics products,” Crouch said. “It highlights Blackmore’s position as a leader in FM lidar and the broader impact that the technology is poised to have in transportation. Most of all, it was a big win for the diverse team at Blackmore. They put in an incredible amount of hard work to bring this technology to market. I’m super proud to see them recognized at this level.”
Growing in Gallatin
As the company continues to grow, Crouch said Blackmore wants to stay in Bozeman.
“You look at the photonics industry here and the talent pool and the experience, it made a lot of sense to stay here in Bozeman,” Crouch said. “We wanted to build the company here. There is a support system in Bozeman between the photonics companies.”
One of the good problems Blackmore has encountered is growth. Over the past two years, Blackmore has grown from 4 employees to more than 70 people. Crouch said to handle the growth, the company deals with issues as they crop up and seek advice from others who have dealt with growing pains.
Crouch himself is a Montana transplant. He is originally from the South and earned his bachelor’s’ degree in New Jersey. Crouch said he visited Montana a few times as a child, and the Treasure State stuck with him. So when it came to graduate school, he chose Montana State University.
While he left after graduating for a short period, Crouch was able to return to Montana. He hopes the beauty of Montana that attracted him to the state will help others make Montana home.
“In terms of recruiting talent, life in Montana is a dream come true to a certain segment,” he said. “The community here, the ecosystem of companies and the support of government, state and local, in Montana is outstanding.”
So how is the future in for Blackmore in Montana? According to Crouch, “the future is bright and I think that has a lot has to do with the organic growth of the Bozeman photonics community.”