Our Blog > Weekly Skim: MT Business

Bozeman startup MyVillage raises largest seed round in Montana history, MSU spin-out company Sustainable Bioproducts raises $33M, Montana's economy at a glance, small towns are dying everywhere but Hamilton, ACT and Blackfoot Communications partner...

After a snow-filled winter, mud season has moved in. Stay dry...and get caught up with this week's skim of Montana business news below. 

Bozeman-headquartered MyVillage raises $5.95M to make early child care accessible and affordable

When it comes to early-childcare, MyVillage co-founder, Elizabeth Szymanski, said there’s three key traits to look for – affordability, high-quality care and availability. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find them all at once. It was experiencing this difficulty first hand that co-founders Szymanski and Erica Mackey teamed up in 2017 to launch MyVillage, a solution that allows care providers and educators to more easily and effectively launch in-home preschool or child care programs. With MyVillage, care providers receive front- and back-office tools like accounting, marketing and scheduling to make it easy to launch and run an in-home child care program. MyVillage also offers professional photography, a program website and a marketing toolkit to help them promote, operate and fill their programs. Szymanski said MyVillage provides a business-in-a-box approach, allowing providers to do what they do best, focus on the children. After launching in 2017 in Colorado and Montana, the company has more than 100 children in MyVillage programs. On the back of that success, the company recently announced a $5.95M seed round of funding to expand the business, marking the largest seed round raised in Montana history! Investors included: Acumen, Jasmine Social Investments, Atlassian Foundation, Better Ventures, Gary Community Investments, Kairos, Red Sea Ventures and City Lights Capital. The company has 16 full-time employees, split between Colorado and Montana. However, with this raise, Szymanski said MyVillage will focus on growing its community and saturating its two existing markets before looking at expansion nationally. [ColoradoInno]

Hi-Country jerky factory buyers aim to keep jobs in Lincoln, Montana

The sale of Hi-Country Snack Foods to a Bozeman couple continues forward recently with the announcement of a $400,000 state economic grant. The loan from the Montana Department of Commerce’s Community Development Block Grant Economic Development Program aims to provide working capital to purchase inventory for the business and ultimately to keep the jobs at Hi-Country in Lincoln after the business sale. Hi-Country is Lincoln's largest employer with 42 employees, the Blackfoot Valley Dispatch reported. And, considering Lincoln’s entire population is 1,013, that's a lot of Montana jobs in the Lincoln community. Sources say the new owners plan to grow the business in Lincoln in the next few years, maintaining the current jobs as well as adding 15-25 new jobs over the next three years. Furthermore, the $400,000 is only a piece of a roughly $6-million funding package in the works. [Great Falls Tribune]

Major award to Missoula’s MonTEC a big boost for state’s bioscience industry

While Missoula is home to a growing number of startups rooted in the biosciences, a new contract awarded by the U.S. Small Business Administration looks to unite state partners and grow the industry to its full potential. The Montana Technology Enterprise Center, otherwise known as MonTEC, announced the $500,000 annual award on Tuesday. The business incubator, located in Missoula, was one of just seven across the U.S. to receive the grant, earning it accolades from state and community partners. Miranda-Freer, who also oversees MonTEC operations, said the award helps fund a number of goals, from peer-to-peer development to gap funding and technical assistance. Each of the contract’s six partners will play a specific role in the program, including the University of Montana, the Montana Bioscience Alliance, Swan Valley Medical and the Missoula Economic Partnership. Missoula is already home to several bioscience companies, including those based at MonTEC. The program looks to grow those companies, boost their bottom line and create more good-paying Montana jobs across Missoula and the state. [Missoulian]

Barnard gets $187 million border wall contract

The U.S. Department of Defense announced this week that a Bozeman construction company was awarded $187 million for a border wall construction project. Barnard Construction Co. was awarded a contract to replace vehicle fencing with pedestrian fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border near Yuma, Arizona, the defense department wrote on its website. The wall will be 11 miles long with heights of 18 to 30 feet, according to a news release by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Barnard Construction Co. declined to comment on the project. It has worked on a number of big infrastructure projects across the country, from tunnels under San Francisco to dams in Alaska, according to its website. [Bozeman Chronicle]

Another tight year for the job market

As the Flathead Valley prepares for another busy spring and summer, employers, labor officials, and others are working on solutions to staff shortages. According to Laura Garner, manager for the Job Service Kalispell, there are currently 696 Kalispell jobs listed in the area. Sustained growth has been the story in the Flathead job market for the last couple of years, with unemployment rates continuing to shrink or stay low and businesses feeling the impact. Last summer several businesses had to adjust hours because they didn’t have enough staff to cover the shifts, and contractors found difficulty hiring skilled workers. The staffing shortages aren’t limited to construction or the service industry, however. “I can’t find an industry that’s not touched by the shortages,” Gardner said. “Definitely we see a lot in the healthcare field, and we’re always looking for folks in our tourism and hospitality industry, and then, of course, construction.” According to the state Department of Labor and Industry, the problems around staffing shortages are likely to continue. The state expects to add 3,860 each year until 2027, but the labor force is expected to grow by 3,640 workers each year in the same timeframe. Northwest Montana alone is projected to add 1,380 jobs each year until 2027, increasing at an annual growth rate of 0.9 percent. The only other region in the state expected to grow faster is the southwest corner — the area including and around Gallatin County — which is expected to add 1,425 jobs a year and grow annually at 0.9 percent. [Flathead Beacon]

Project for MSU class turns into growing Montana business: Farmented Foods

When Vanessa Bakken and Vanessa Walsten teamed up in 2016 for a class project at Montana State University, they had no idea it would turn into a business that helps prevent food waste with products available statewide. As partners in an interdisciplinary farm-to-market class, Bakken and Walsten were paired with a local organic farmer and tasked with creating a value-added product for his farm. The farmer told them that one problem was that vegetables from his farm that were considered “ugly” weren’t selling. That resulted in lost revenue and unnecessary food waste. “We wanted to help solve this problem and give the ugly vegetables a longer shelf life,” Bakken said. Their solution was to ferment the farm’s disfigured and excess vegetables. The classmates’ project was so well received they went on to compete in three business start-up challenges earning $5,500, which they used to officially launch the company. Two years later, the duo’s growing business, Farmented Foods, offers four products that are sold in approximately 20 stores across Montana and in several local restaurants. Bakken and Walsten anticipate the business will continue to grow. “Every month we move closer and closer to being able to do this full-time,” Bakken said, adding that, in the next several years, they hope to have a presence in more locations across Montana with a larger network of partner farms. After that, a regional or even nationwide reach could be a goal, she said.“We feel really lucky to be starting this business in Montana, in the communities we’re in,” Bakken said. “The support of local food and local businesses is more than we ever expected.” [Montana State University]

Small towns are dying everywhere but here (Hamilton, Montana)

As small towns elsewhere saw prosperity pass them by in favor of the big cities, something unusual happened to this rural hamlet tucked in the Bitterroot Valley: It flourished. Two local boys came home from college to Hamilton, Montana, and launched a microbrewery, Higherground Brewing, that takes in more than $1 million in annual sales. Retirees arrived in droves, drawn by affordable land and recreation opportunities in the area’s snow-frosted mountains and trout-filled streams. And the federal government’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories opened a state-of-the-art biosafety facility to investigate the deadliest viral diseases, including Ebola. As U.S. economic growth in the past decade assumed an increasingly urban character, that diverse set of strengths enabled Hamilton to defy a pervasive narrative of rural decline. Hamilton’s population of 4,728 is up more than 10 percent since 2010, reflecting a Western renaissance that contrasts with the experience of small towns in other regions. [Washington Post]

Following hemp legalization, business booming for Belgrade company

On the heels of hemp’s legalization, a Belgrade cannabidiol company is taking off. With a 6,500-square-foot research and development production facility, Discretion Partners has signed major distribution deals and provided CBD products to professional sports teams and players across the country, president and CEO Larry Harmon said. As things ramp up with his company, Harmon said the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill should help the hemp business. According to Harmon, the bill took hemp off of the federal government’s list of controlled substances, removing barriers to production and improving accessibility to banks. In Montana, that could be huge. Though numbers can vary depending on how production is counted, a report done by a hemp advocacy group, Vote Hemp, said that Montana saw the most hemp production in the entire country in 2018, going from 542 acres in 2017 to 22,000 acres in 2018. [Bozeman Chronicle]

New call center First Call Resolutions (FCR) expected to boost economy in Butte

From 2010 to 2017, Butte only grew by about 400 people, or a growth rate of .2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “We definitely aren’t headed backward, but we also aren’t skyrocketing like some of our neighboring communities,” said Butte Local Development Corporation Executive Director Joe Willauer. The Butte Plaza Mall has lost several tenants over the years, but now, First Call Resolutions (FCR) (hiring), an Oregon-based call center, plans to move into the former JCPenny location at the mall and is expected to house approximately 350 employees. According to Willauer, this is a positive sign for the future of Butte’s economy. “I don’t know of any other communities that have the can-do attitude and I think that stems from our mining legacy. But as we grow in an incremental fashion, we are able to keep that culture what it is and such a great place to live, while also looking to the future and enticing new companies like FCR to join us.” [KTVQ]

Advanced Communications Technology (ACT) and Blackfoot Communications announce strategic partnership

Wyoming-headquartered Advanced Communications Technology (ACT) and Montana-headquartered Blackfoot Communications (hiring) announced a strategic partnership this week to expand their fiber network footprint, bringing high-speed, reliable connectivity to businesses of all sizes across the western United States. This strategic partnership will transform today’s carrier services environment with a combined service territory of more than 30,000 locations across 16+ states. “Over the past several years, ACT and the Range Companies have established a fiber optic network extending from southeast Montana to Denver, Colorado, with interfaces that allow for nationwide connectivity,” said Aaron Sopko, General Manager at Advanced Communications Technology. “A partnership with a high caliber company such as Blackfoot Carrier Services will not only extend our reach, but strengthen our offering through a combination of resources. Geographically diverse, low latency routes to major destinations are becoming more important, and ACT is able to accomplish both through partnerships such as this one with Blackfoot.” [Press of Atlantic City]

The largest solar project in Montana could be coming to Dillon

A proposed solar development north of Dillon could bring an estimated $19 million in taxes over 35 years to Beaverhead County and as much as $1.29 million for a period of time to the state trust, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The company, Clenera LLC, a Boise-based solar-energy firm, would build a 160-megawatt solar-panel facility on 1,306 acres of leased state land. The project is also expected to bring anywhere from 300 to 400 Montana jobs during construction, said Jared McKee, Clenera’s director of business development. Mike Atwood, DNRC real estate management bureau chief, said the project would bring a small number of permanent jobs once construction is over, but McKee said the company isn’t ready yet to release that number. The land proposed for the solar development is currently being leased by two different ranching families, the Marchesseaus and the Hagenbarths. Romeo Marchesseau said his family is “totally opposed” to the project. And while Hagenbarth recognizes the benefit to the state, he has concerns about the project. The first of likely many public meetings on the proposed project was held this week by the DNRC. [Montana Standard]

Bozeman-based MSU spin-out company raises $33 million in capital

A Bozeman biotechnology company founded on research conducted at Montana State University has raised $33 million in venture capital funds, the most substantial investment to date in an MSU spin-out. Sustainable Bioproducts is developing a new way to grow protein, sourced from a fungus known as MK7. “MSU has been a great partner and we continue to collaborate on fundamental research through a NASA project," said Thomas Jonas, CEO and co-founder of Sustainable Bioproducts, which also has offices in Chicago. “We have also hired several MSU graduates, which is a testament to the quality education provided here.” [Montana State University]

Helena's Gulch Distillers wins national acclaim for Guardian Gin

Helena microdistillery Gulch Distillers entered its small batch gin in the American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits competition and pulled out a silver medal, receiving national acclaim. This was the first competition co-owners Tyrrell Hibbard and Steffan Rasile had entered their Guardian Gin. This has been an exceptional year for Gulch Distillers. The nearly 4-year-old business has entered only two competitions and taken great recognition at both. Earlier this year, Gulch Distillers won gold, best in class and best in show for its Burrone Fernet at the 2019 American Craft Spirits Association’s competition. [Independent Record]

Montana’s Economy at a Glance

The Montana Business Quarterly recently released its report on Montana’s Economy. Highlighting the diversity of Montana’s urban areas including population, income and growth rates, the report summarized the economies of the varied communities as well as identified recent economic trends. You can find the complete report here. [Montana Business Quarterly]

Hoteliers look to expand Missoula’s Tourism Business Improvement District citywide

Members of the Missoula City Council signaled their preliminary intent to expand Missoula’s Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) citywide earlier this week, bringing it on par with 17 other districts established across the state. Doing so would grow the program from roughly 20 participating hotels and motels to 33 and increase the revenue used to promote tourism and business development in Missoula by around $390,000 a year. The program charges hotel visitors in Missoula a flat fee of $2 per occupied room per night. That funding is directed back to the TBID, which uses it to promote local tourism and businesses and host events as well as grow Missoula’s air service. [Missoula Current]