High-tech companies reach landmark revenue

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High-tech businesses in Montana reached a landmark revenue of more than $1 billion in 2016, thanks in part to the success of a number of local companies.

The study by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research showed that Montana High Tech Business Alliance members’ total revenue hit $1.09 billion last year. Nonmember firms surveyed showed an additional $487 million. This is the third annual survey to be done by the research bureau and was completed by 132 members and 82 nonmember firms.

While a third of Alliance members are located in Missoula and another third in Bozeman, the Flathead Valley accounts as the third largest hub for members and high-tech companies in the state.

“High-tech is really hitting a critical mass in Montana,” said Christian Henderson, the executive director for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. “I don’t think Montana’s high-tech industry shows any indication of slowing down.”

The survey also found that the average annual salary for Alliance members in 2016 was $60,000 — more than twice the median earnings for Montana workers, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

“These companies for the most part are selling their products and services globally, bringing that money back [to Montana]. That payroll goes to people buying houses and putting their kids into local schools,” Henderson said.

In the BBER’s 2017 Economic Report, Henderson said the survey found high-tech and manufacturing companies were projected to grow seven times faster than the overall Montana economy.

Alliance members who took the survey noted that they expect to add nearly 20 percent, or 963, more jobs in 2017.

“More people see Montana as a potential destination for starting a high-tech career,” Henderson said. “People think of us as a great vacation, but we’d like them to also think of us as the place to get a good high-tech job.”

ViZn Energy, a Montana High Tech Business Alliance member founded in Columbia Falls that specializes in building batteries, is among the companies expecting to see significant growth this year.

“This report ... is an important tool to help Montana’s decision makers understand the first-order economic impact that high-growth businesses like ours are having in the state,” said ViZn Energy Chief Executive Ron Van Dell in a press statement.

ViZn employs about 50 scientists, hardware and software engineers, as well as marketing, finance and operations staff in Montana, Van Dell noted, adding that those jobs pay between $50,000 and $150,000 per year.

“We’ve been able to find individuals who are from either Montana or adjacent states who have spent anywhere from five to 20 years in traditional high-tech hubs, places like Silicon Valley, who are looking to return to the parts of the country where they are from,” said Mike Grunow, vice president of marketing for ViZn. “It’s unique to have this kind of technology organization here in Montana. The type of candidate [who is] from Montana is eager to get back to Montana.”

What makes a company “high-tech” is typically the use of cutting-edge technology, what makes ViZn’s technology above and beyond the ordinary tech that’s available, Grunow says, is how long their batteries last and their ability to be recycled.

“The interesting thing is that our technology is based on reverse-oxidation, the plating of metals on other metals. It turns out that Applied Materials has a division located in the valley, and inside that division there are chemists and engineers who have a lot of familiarity with the type of chemical process that they are doing. So it helped to have people who have that knowledge base,” Grunow said.

Grunow says ViZn’s zinc-iron flow battery can last up to 20 years and is 100 percent recyclable.

“The team in Montana is critical because their development work helps us accelerate our product,” Grunow said. “The folks there are really core to what we are trying to achieve.”

In the survey, Alliance members noted Montana West Economic Development in Kalispell as a top resource for business growth. MWED, also an Alliance member, is a nonprofit that helps businesses by connecting them with resources.

MWED has worked with local high-tech businesses including Velocity Communications, ViZn Energy, Nomad GCS and Proof Research.

Jerry Meerkatz, the president of MWED, says one benefit of the high-tech products created in the valley is that they are used both locally and globally.

“The fruits of your work, your labor, particularly in software, can be spread around the world while you’re living in the place that you want to live,” he said.

Reporter Alyssa Gray may be reached at 758-4433 or agray@dailyinterlake.com.

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