Montana tech businesses seek to strengthen partnerships with University of Montana

Tech company leaders and University of Montana representatives from various disciplines gathered at First Interstate Bank to discuss opportunities to improve connections. Photos by Slikati.

By Noah Hill

While some university professors draw criticism for staying in their “ivory towers,” Dr. Jay Evans is defying that mold. Depending on which side of the Clark Fork River he is on, Evans might be wearing a different hat. A research professor of immunology and director of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana, Evans is also the President and CEO of Inimmune Corp., a biotech startup that has amassed $22 million in money from grants and contracts since the company’s establishment in 2016.

“We wouldn’t be here without the university’s partnership,” Evans said. “Sixteen employees from [the Center for Translational Medicine at UM] are also enclosed in Inimmune.”

Evans shared his story on November 27 during a high-tech roundtable co-hosted by UM and the Montana High Tech Business Alliance at First Interstate Bank in downtown Missoula. Attendees included leaders from local tech businesses and the university, including Alliance member and nonmember companies. The discussion highlighted numerous successful partnerships and relationships, like Evans’, and opportunities for further collaboration, such as internships, alumni relations, and tech transfer.

Jay Evans, Inimmune President and CEO, describes the unique public-private relationship between his company and the university.

Inimmune was founded after a major corporate reorganization effort shuttered a GlaxoSmithKline research laboratory in Hamilton, 50 miles south of Missoula. Because Evans and his team were not willing to sacrifice their Montana lifestyle to retain employment with the pharmaceutical giant, they instead turned to the University of Montana to develop a creative solution. The result was a unique partnership between the public and private sectors.

“It’s been greatly successful because we are able to leverage everything the university has to offer in research and basic academic studies,” Evans said. “The funding agencies like that model because they can see money going to research that ends up developing medicines for people.”

Evans also hopes that other disciplines on campus could adopt the model he has helped develop.

“Computer Science and Business also could make this public-private partnership model very successful,” Evans said.

 

Internships, Apprenticeships, and Junior Talent

Brian Loucks, senior platform product manager at Workiva, said his company enjoys a strong relationship with the University of Montana.

Workiva, like many others companies in the Missoula tech ecosystem, relies heavily on junior talent to achieve maximum productivity. According to Brian Loucks, senior platform product manager at Workiva, the company also boasts a strong relationship with the University of Montana. Workiva employees even step in as adjunct instructors to teach relevant classes in the computer science department on a regular basis.

The connections fostered by these relationships have led to the development of several different internship programs with the company which are particularly lucrative for students looking to launch their careers.

“If the internship goes well, we extend full-time employment offers,” said Loucks.

Workiva, however, is not the only company in Missoula to recognize the immense value of access to new talent that the university provides. Many companies, including ATG, a Cognizant company, Blackfoot, TOMIS, Audience Awards, onX, and Inimmune provide internships in fields ranging from software development to consulting to human resources. Like Workiva, several of these companies may extend full-time job offers for outstanding student interns.

Audience Awards CEO Paige Williams, who holds two graduate degrees from UM, said her company relies heavily on interns and has since its founding in 2011.

“My first hires were all interns out of the University of Montana,” Williams said.

Terry Berkhouse and Andrea Rhoades from the university’s Office of Academic Enrichment both attended the roundtable and offered to help businesses who were interested in strengthening their internship program.

“I would love to talk with any [business] individually…about how we can help you find an intern,” Berkhouse told attending companies.

Paula Short, UM’s communications director, said career fairs are one tool the university can improve to strengthen its relationship with businesses both in Missoula and across the state, as some companies expressed difficulty connecting with  students who were committed to pursuing a job.

“I would love to hear, and maybe we can follow up, about thoughts on how to [structure career fairs] differently,” Short said.

 

Curriculum

“We are very, very enthusiastic about partnerships that exist between faculty, staff, students and your organizations,” Provost Jon Harbor told attendees.

The university is also considering integrating internships with new curricular offerings. According to UM Provost Jon Harbor, an internal push to revamp summer course offerings may provide another creative opportunity for businesses to partner with the university.

Specifically, Harbor wants to create a program that allows students to primarily focus on an internship but also allows the student to take one or two related courses for credit over the summer. Harbor also hopes that this program could expose out-of-state students to Montana’s tech ecosystem.

“We would advertise not only to our own students, but to students coming from hot and humid places during the summer,” Harbor said. ‘It would be a very attractive opportunity to come to Missoula for a summer, take a course or two, and complete an internship.”

The university also wants to carve out a niche among professionals. According to Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM, the school offers a Master of Interdisciplinary Studies that helps mid-career professionals enhance their resume by obtaining uniquely cross-disciplinary credentials.

Whittenburg said the full potential of the program is not yet understood, mostly because the program is not as visible as other professional and graduate programs that the university offers.

In addition to graduate degrees, university officials would also like to expand opportunities for employees to obtain microcredentials, or certifications that do not require the completion of an advanced degree.

“We need to start asking, ‘What are the educational needs of employees?’” Harbor said. “Microcredentials or courses or training programs are a really easy extension of what we are already doing for students.”

Harbor stressed the importance of employers investing in the continuing education of their employees and said that the professional development opportunities offered by the university could help employee recruitment and retention throughout the state.

 

Alumni Relationships

While some companies have leveraged their relationship with UM to access junior talent, many tech employers in Montana still have to look out of state to find senior-level personnel. Jann Butler, vice president of people at onX, said one way to recruit experienced employees back to Montana is through UM alumni relationships.

Jann Butler, vice president of people at onX, suggested strengthening relationships with alumni is a potential way to attract more talent back to Montana.

“When you have to go get a senior engineer, you’re probably going to go out of state, and then you have to get them to sign off [on] Montana, unless they’re from here,” Butler said. “There is something special about the alumni connection that can plant the seed for them to come back to Montana.”

One relatively simple way to reach out of state alumni is through publications released by the UM Alumni Association, Harbor said. The magazine include profiles of alums, including those who have made the transition from an out-of-state position to a career in Montana. Williams also recommended including a list of available positions in Montana in the alumni newsletter.

While many UM alumni have yet to find their way back to the Big Sky State, others have already found their niche in the Montana tech sphere by starting their own company.

Evan Tipton, who earned both his undergraduate and graduate degree from the UM School of Forestry, is one such alum. After working in Silicon Valley, Tipton returned to Montana to Missoula to start his own tech company, TOMIS, in January 2017. Featured as one of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance’s companies to watch in 2018, TOMIS utilizes its relationship with the university in every way it can.

Greg Robinson, TOMIS chief data officer, described unique projects that TOMIS has participated in as the result of Tipton’s personal connections to faculty on campus.

“We have a Master’s of Data Science class using TOMIS data for their end of semester project right now,” Robinson said.

Robinson also added that hiring UM graduates has been integral to the company’s rapid growth and success.

Another prominent Missoula tech company, Submittable, also prioritizes its relationship with the university. According to Asta So, vice president of people, the company uses alumni connections to its advantage in the hiring process. So earned an Master of Fine Arts from UM, as did Submittable co-founder and CEO Michael FitzGerald.

“About 41 percent of our employees are UM graduates,” So said. “We really depend on the university.”

As the meeting wrapped up, company leaders lingered to chat with university representatives about other opportunities and next steps in building relationships that are mutually beneficial for both the university and local businesses.

“We are very, very enthusiastic about partnerships that exist between faculty, staff, students and your organizations,” Harbor told attendees.

If you’re interested in joining the conversation, or learning about how your company can partner with the University of Montana, contact director[at]mthightech.org.


About the Author: Originally from Kalispell, Noah Hill will graduate from the University of Montana in May with a degree in microbiology and plans to attend law school. In his free time, Noah enjoys rafting, fishing, hiking, and reading a good book.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an nonpartisan nonprofit association of more than 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit MTHighTech.org or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.

 

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