MISSOULA – Research is rocking at the University of Montana, where for the second year in a row the University set a new record for external funding.
UM brought in $87 million in funding during the past fiscal year to support homegrown Montana research, entrepreneurship and statewide outreach, exceeding the last year’s record total of $83 million.
With these funds, UM researchers and scholars are designing new molecules with applications for drug development and environmental remediation. They are creating professional trainings to improve mental health among children living in rural communities. Among many other activities, they also are tracking elk to better understand their migratory patterns and pursuing an array of other newly funded research efforts that promise to create local economic opportunity while addressing questions and challenges of global significance.
Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president of research and creative scholarship, said University faculty members and staff reached the new record through 684 submitted proposals, which was almost 10 percent more than the previous year.
“We have a growing reputation as a research university, with nationally and internationally renowned scientists,” Whittenburg said. “Our students get to work in amazing labs and learn from great researchers, who also regularly inspire budding Montana scientists through dynamic K-12 outreach programs. At the same time, this activity spurs entrepreneurship and attracts new companies to power our economy.
“We couldn’t be more excited about our current trajectory in funded research.”
Whittenburg said UM faculty members are the foundation for UM’s growing research efforts. He noted that the University has added a number of new outstanding faculty researchers, including Josh Millspaugh, the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation; Jedediah Brodie, the John Craighead Endowed Chair; L. Scott Mills, who is internationally recognized in wildlife biology; and Matt Church, an oceanographer at the Flathead Lake Biological Station who also has an international reputation.
The economic impacts are on an upshot as well. Traditionally, the University’s research enterprise primarily engaged with the business community through “technology transfer,” otherwise known as the commercialization of research derived inventions. Although those efforts are still strong at UM, in recent years a vision was cast to add additional programs to build out the University’s suite of services available to entrepreneurs and business owners both on and off campus.
Today those services include the Small Business Development Center, the Procurement and Technical Assistance Program, the Montana World Trade Center, the Montana Code School, Blackstone LaunchPad and the UM business incubator MonTEC.
“The University of Montana’s fingerprint on the business community of Montana has expanded exponentially in the past three to four years,” said Joe Fanguy, CEO of MonTEC. “Last year alone the collective suite of services, which is being rebranded Accelerate MT, engaged over 700 businesses and entrepreneurs across the state. Our impacts range from connecting high growth biotech ventures with investment capital to helping a guy with a gravel truck secure work from the Forest Service.”
Fanguy said that due to UM’s involvement and promotion of its growing entrepreneurial ecosystem, there has been a recent surge in investment capital in Montana, as evidenced by the launch of Next Frontier Capital in 2015. NFC recently announced a $21 million Montana-based venture fund, which included investment from the UM Foundation, and is focused on Montana-based technology and health care companies. The investment dollars already are finding their way in to the local economy to create high-wage jobs, as two of NFC’s early investments were in Missoula-based Submittable and Clearas.
“It is exciting to think about the future,” Fanguy said. “The opportunity to leverage Big Sky thinking and doing can change the economic landscape for generations to come.”
During the same year, Whittenburg’s office created the Broader Impacts Group. BIG harnesses the University’s research and creative scholarship to educate and inspire the state – especially its next generation – through nationally award-winning efforts like the spectrUM Discovery Area, We Are Montana in the Classroom, the Space Program Outreach Team, BOREALIS and innovateUM. It also is home to the newly formed Autonomous Aerial Systems Office, which guides researchers, students and the greater community in the use of unmanned autonomous systems like drones.
BIG Director Holly Truitt said, “By bringing a number of our public engagement programs under one roof, we’re finding we can create measurable collective impact for Montana communities and K-12 learners, particularly toward our shared purpose of closing long-standing opportunity and achievement gaps.”
In its inaugural year, BIG served more than 70,000 Montanans and received just over $2.4 million in new funds.
“As you can see, there is a positive momentum in research and the impact our research enterprise has on the community and state,” Whittenburg said. “With the research-active faculty and students at UM and the solid support of the staff, we expect even stronger numbers next year.”