Joe Fanguy, director of Accelerate Montana, speaks during the official launch of UM’s economic-development umbrella organization on Jan. 26.

Accelerating Montana

New organization offers opportunity to launch businesses to next level

Joe Fanguy is a pusher. Not pushy, mind you — he’s from New Orleans and that’s just bad manners — but always pushing: a little out of your comfort zone, a little past what you thought was possible, a little toward a path you might not have considered.

But how do you push students with pie-in-the-sky ideas, professors looking to expand ground-breaking research into a commercial ventures and established businesses ranging from multinational corporations to one-man operations? Easy. You pull them in first.

Fanguy, the director of the newly minted Accelerate Montana, oversees a variety of programs ranging from startup incubators to government contract procurement assistance. But no matter whether the business in question is a Silicon Valley-esque startup or a lumberjack looking for more work, the first step is stopping to listen.

“It starts with us trying to build a community,” he says. “There’s a frontier mindset here that I’m going to help my neighbor, and we’re trying to participate in that and overlay it with an entrepreneurial approach.”

The mechanisms to do that at UM have always been available, but until recently services from the Office of Technology Transfer to Blackstone LaunchPad were spread across multiple departments across campus. With the creation of Accelerate Montana, those services and others will have a more centralized point of engagement for students, faculty and the community to get information and head toward the specific program best suited for their needs.

Accelerate Montana provides more than an umbrella over campus, however, as it bridges the Clark Fork River to encompass MonTEC, a nonprofit business incubator just across the water from campus. There, in a nondescript office building in the shadow of the new Missoula College building, startups have access to subsidized office space with some of the fastest internet connectivity in the valley. The Montana Code School there also teaches future web developers, and a startup boot camp — known as Accelerate Montana (before the name was usurped by the larger program) — gives budding entrepreneurs a jump start. MonTEC also operates the Mansfield Academy of Global Leadership, which exists within Mansfield Center programming.

On the main campus, Accelerate Montana is located in the new Harold and Priscilla Gilkey Building and encompasses UM’s Office of Technology Transfer for faculty looking to take their research to the masses, Blackstone LaunchPad’s student-focused entrepreneurship program, the Montana World Trade Center, the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), the Small Business Development Center and the University’s new executive education venture, called iLEAD.

“Around 750 businesses or entrepreneurs connect with us through the diverse channels annually and have collectively netted nearly $50 million in financing over the past five years,” Fanguy says. “Everyone from the guy with a gravel truck who wants to work with Patty (Cox) for a Forest Service contract to high-tech stuff through MonTEC.”

Those touches also include students and faculty who have used their time at UM to launch successful ventures that range from examining core samples for some of the biggest companies in the world to launching — literally — a Missoula-based drone manufacturing brand.

“For the past five years, we’ve built a broader suite of business services to provide greater efficiency and enhance impacts in Montana, yes, but we’ve also built capacity for global projects,” Fanguy says. “We’ve tried to communicate through partnerships, secondary channels and direct outreach, and we feel it’s worked.”

Accelerate Montana has the built-in advantage of being in Big Sky Country, named the most entrepreneurial state according to the Kauffman Foundation, where open space seems to have the effect of encouraging residents to look beyond the horizon, where others might see fences.

“At the end of the day, it’s not super complicated — it’s the mindset of the people,” Fanguy says. “You’ve got a kernel and you just keep pushing.” •

Elke Govertsen and Dori Gilels (right), shown here in their Missoula office, used Mamalode magazine to launch a national business network.

Mom-run publishing empire reaches beyond Missoula roots

It’s never easy to start a business, much less to keep a steady hand on the reins when the product accelerates into popularity. For Missoula entrepreneurs Elke Govertsen and Dori Gilels, familiarity with the market wasn’t necessarily going to help either, since their parenting magazine-cum-modern publishing empire, Mamalode, isn’t just published for busy moms — it’s run by them.

“Mamalode has grown as our kids have grown,“ Govertsen says. “Starting a company while the kids were still toddlers was a juggle to say the least. But at the end of the day, our value is that our audience believes in us and sees us as a friend who is right in it with them. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I would assert the same is true in business.”

What started in 2009 as a local Montana magazine is now a national network that has published 25 editions of the magazine, with more than 1,000 contributors and a digital footprint that ranges from website content to podcasts to engaged social media followings. And as Mamalode grew, so too did signs that it was time to move from a virtual office space to a physical one, which led Govertsen and Gilels to MonTEC.

“Three years ago, when we decided to centralize our operations and bring the team together, MonTEC provided the perfect home base — convenient location, affordable rent, office supplies and services, and an opportunity to join a growing community of entrepreneurs,” Gilels says. “At MonTEC, we had the opportunity to cultivate a company culture, network with like-minded colleagues and focus on building the business.”

Just as 2016 came to a close, Mamalode left the MonTEC building to move into a new space in downtown Missoula.

Michael Hofmann and Marc Hendrix (right), UM geosciences faculty members, pose with drilling core samples housed in their new AIM GeoAnalytics headquarters.

AIM-ing for success in shale

Sometimes a business idea is the result of years of dreaming and planning. Other times it’s the result of a phone call. When the phone rang and Marc Hendrix and Michael Hofmann picked up, it wasn’t just a business idea on the other end but their first client.

The pair was approached by a large oil company bemoaning a lack of available labs for analyzing core samples and soon after they founded AIM GeoAnalytics to fill an obvious need.

“This was 2011, when the shale gold rush was on,” says Hendrix (who is a full-time faculty member in UM’s geosciences department; Hofmann is a research assistant professor of geology). “Shale is mud rock and historically is not a type that’s enjoyed a lot of attention from geologists. It just so happens I studied mud rocks for my Ph.D. and had done some work for industry, and Michael had just come away from five years in a research group at ConocoPhillips.”

The pair immediately approached Joe Fanguy through the Office of Technology Transfer, because, as Hendrix says, “neither of us are businessmen, we’re trained academics.” Fanguy guided them though the ins and outs of basics like contracts and hiring and helped them find a physical space for a lab that would need to handle incoming shipments of core samples from across the globe.

“Originally we rented space at MonTEC, and by the time we left we were occupying one of the bigger spaces in the building,” Hendrix says. Now, AIM occupies office space across town, with another geoscience consulting company moving into space next door also owned by the duo. The company’s growth hasn’t always been easy, but in addition to employing a half-dozen people, UM students are big beneficiaries of AIM’s success.

“I’ve seen more rock in the last five years than I’d seen in the 25 before that,” Hendrix says. “I’m able to take full advantage of the information flow at AIM and use that to improve my teaching and position our students so they’re more competitive in the hiring market.”

Plus, with UM’s willingness to help fledgling companies like AIM, Hendrix believes both his company and the University are primed for growth.

“Collaborating with the business community is going to be more and more a critical part of the success of universities across the country,” he says. “UM is particularly well-positioned because of our breadth of programs, natural surroundings and the type of folks who are drawn to a place like Missoula. I’m optimistic it’s all going to grow as we move forward.” •