Senator Jon Tester meets with small, growing Missoula tech companies

LMG Security Director of Business Development Patrick Burns (far right) talks with Montana Senator Jon Tester about how the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will affect business for web-based companies. Also in attendance, clockwise from Tester, were Orbital Shift CEO Kevin O’Reilly, TOMIS Founder and CEO Evan Tipton, LumenAd CEO Ryan Hansen, DermaXon CEO Michell Huie, DermaXon Co-founder Philippe Diaz, and Inimmune COO David Burkhart. Senator Tester’s staff requested to meet with small, growing companies in Missoula. Missoula companies with 50 or fewer employees from our Companies to Watch lists in 2017 and 2018 were invited to the meeting. Photo by Katy Spence.

By Katy Spence

On April 21, the Alliance coordinated a meeting between Sen. Jon Tester and growing Missoula tech companies at his office’s request. Six companies shared challenges and opportunities with Tester, who asked several questions about operating small tech companies in Montana.

Funding challenges

Michelle Huie, CEO of DermaXon, and David Burkhart, COO of Inimmune, both said that access to capital is especially challenging for biotech companies. Montana’s pool of available funds is lower than other states, Huie said. To compound the challenge, Burkhart said venture capital firms avoid companies who have applied for SBIR grants because patents get old and expire.

The lack of funding creates a bottleneck in company growth, for both biotech and tech companies.

“If we had sufficient seed funding, we could be going from 10 employees to 100 employees in a matter of a year or two,” Burkhart said.

Other companies at the table echoed their frustration with state grant processes. Tester said companies who are having issues with state funding should reach out to the Montana Department of Commerce Director Pam Haxby-Cote to make the process more user-friendly. He also offered to have his staff help coordinate a meeting.

The impact of GDPR

Company representatives unanimously voiced concerns about how the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will affect their internet-based operations. When GDPR is enacted on May 25, all companies who may have European customer information stored online must be able to comply with regulations including the Right to be Forgotten. The rush to comply is affecting tech companies in more ways than one.

“In talking to our law firms, they’re also scrambling to learn about this,” said Kevin O’Reilly, CEO of Orbital Shift. “What needs to be in there, how to do it, all of that, which is an added expense in what we’re doing, but also adds the cost of learning.”

Many affiliated companies are finding that these regulations affect them in unforeseen ways, from paying more for legal advising to complying with the regulations themselves. Patrick Burns, LMG Security Director of Business Development, said his company is taking the opportunity to act as consultants during this time of transition.

Tester said he has a lot to learn about GDPR and wished more members of the Senate and House had known about the new regulations when the Congressional committees questioned Mark Zuckerberg two weeks ago.

Learn more about complying with GDPR at TechEx on May 24 at the Missoula College.

Net Neutrality, tax incentives, attracting talent

By the end of the meeting, company representatives were spitballing ideas with Tester about how to make taxes more amenable for small businesses and branding Montana to attract talent from hubs like Seattle.

Ryan Hansen, CEO of LumenAd, told Tester that he was concerned about the FCC’s ability to rule on net neutrality. Tester said that Congressional action is likely and that concerned business owners should be emailing their representatives about issues that may affect their businesses.

A list of Tester’s statewide offices and contact information can be found here.


About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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