Our Blog > MT Business Roundup

Tech company Figure grows in Bozeman, Helena-based SoFi brings high tech to high altitude, women's coworking space Sky Oro to open in Bozeman, HRDC awarded $500K for tiny home village...


School's...out...for...summer! And, we couldn't be more excited about a sunny forecast this week (note the picture of hail that piled up last Saturday). Get caught up with this week's skim of Montana business news below.  

Tech company Figure in Bozeman’s Cannery District grows

About a year after opening a Bozeman office, tech company Figure [hiring] plans to double its staff in the next year. With offices in San Francisco, Montana and Reno, Nevada, the company focuses on home equity, streamlining and shortening the process of gaining access to equity in homes, said Figure spokesman Otto Pohl. According to Pohl, most of Figure’s software engineers are based in Bozeman and Helena. The company seeks to hire a diverse range of workers, said Nate Lampert, human resources business partner at Figure in Bozeman. Women make up about half of Figure’s executive team and 20% of its Bozeman staff. Ten percent of its workers are also veterans, including Lampert, he said. He anticipates adding about 14 more positions to its Bozeman office in the next year. [Bozeman Chronicle]

Proposed dairy processing facility east of Great Falls secures $2.3 million bridge loan

A proposed cheese manufacturing plant planned for east of Great Falls recently closed on a loan with Great Falls Development Authority (GFDA). Big Sky Cheese, which will primarily process fresh milk supplied by local and regional dairy producers into a variety of cheese products. The loan is the first step in the project that is part of Madison Food Park, the corporation that proposed building an agri-business commercial food park east/southeast of Great Falls in 2017. Brett Doney, GFDA president, said they are excited about the project moving forward. “We are trying to grow and diversify both our food and agricultural processing, which is essentially manufacturing, as well as increase agricultural production in the whole Golden Triangle region, which is our Great Falls trade area,” he said. “This will be a Montana branded product, Big Sky Cheese, so it will help promote Montana.” Doney added Big Sky Cheese hopes to break ground next spring. [KRTV]

Few state job creation grants go to rural Montana. Here’s why.

There aren’t too many businesses adding jobs amid the rural fields of north-central Montana these days, but Big Sandy Organics is doing just that. Headquartered in the 600-person town between Great Falls and Havre, the four-year-old business manufactures the Kracklin’ Kamut-brand wheat snack, transforming locally grown large-kernel kamut wheat into a Montana-made product that’s beginning to find its way into stores nationwide. As the company attempts the leap from one-off arrangements with mom-and-pop stores to contracts with national distributors, it’s getting help from a key state jobs program, the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, designed to nurture businesses that can provide Montana workers with stable, well-paid jobs. A $22,500 grant award through the program will help Big Sandy Organics hire an expected three new employees this year. “For a company like us, that’s a major factor,” said General Manager Thomas Dilworth. The small-town company, however, is an anomaly for the job grants program, which is administered by the Montana Department of Commerce. While the 2005 law that created the Big Sky trust calls for the department to “balance” the needs of urban and rural areas, a Montana Free Press analysis of commerce department data finds that rural counties, home to a third of Montana residents, have received only 16 percent of the $26 million in Montana job creation grants awarded over the program’s history. And five of Montana’s urban areas — Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Kalispell, and Helena — accounted for 70 percent of the state’s net job creation between 2001 and 2016. The fundamental challenge, economic developers say, is that it’s easier for government programs to fan job-creation flames where the economy is already running full blast than it is to coax embers to life in places that have, in many cases, struggled with employment declines in timber, mining and agriculture for decades. “What we can do here is focus on outreach and focus on supporting capacity,” said Rice, whom Bullock appointed to lead the commerce department in February. “Going into this summer, it is a big priority for us to do a push in rural areas. [Missoula Current]

Montana women's cowboy boot business, Canty Boots, gets international attention

As many Montanans know, cowboy boots can tell a unique story about your life, your family and where you come from. Nikki Edmundson, of Harrison, Montana, has created a successful business giving old boots new lives with her business, Canty Boots. From this small town, she ships her high-fashion designs to an international audience, most recently Australia. Ranging from classic to extravagant, every pair of refashioned leather boots speaks for themselves. “We’ll take a Tony Lama boot and give it a Lucchese bottom,” she said. “And we play with patterns and colors. We’re using so many elements, different boot tops and bottoms, plus belts and braids and leather. Edmundson is also proud to represent the Last Best Place in a world of fashion that often focuses somewhere else. “I think a lot of people think you have to be in LA, or you have to be in those hot spots,” she said. “It just goes to show you can stay where you are and still make your dream come true. We’ve planted our roots here, and we’re gonna stay and just continue the dream.” [KXLH]

Helena-based SoFi brings high tech to high altitude

Five years ago, a fast-growing personal finance company, SoFi [hiring], expanded from the ocean breeze of California to the mountain air of Montana, bringing a wealth of high-tech jobs to a workforce of talented software engineers ready for a new opportunity. Today, 140 staff in Helena form a large core of the company’s engineering department, which continues to grow. According to VP of Engineering, David Thompson, some of the company’s best recruits come from Montana’s university system, which Thompson said produces “fantastic” engineers, while others come from outside of the state, easily attracted by Montana’s outdoor recreation opportunities and work-life balance. Thompson said the distance from the other offices is a lot shorter with modern technology and ever-growing air infrastructure. According to Thompson, everyone at SoFi marches to the beat of the same drum but with enough freedom to create their own subcultures too. [Choose Montana]

Film industry insiders say new tax credit will boost jobs, bring big productions to Montana

A group of film industry professionals in Montana and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have succeeded in an effort to create a competitive tax incentive to lure film and television productions to Montana. The bill provides a 20% production expenditure transferable tax credit, with additional add-on incentives that can increase the credit to a maximum of 35% of the total production investment. Proponents say the new law will create employment opportunities for people like drivers, horse-wranglers, hairdressers and carpenters while opening up opportunities for artists, filmmakers and producers in the state. Missoula-based filmmaker Lynn-Wood Fields  said, “The reason this had such bipartisan support is it’s really important for our economy. Film and productions ripple the money out to the hotel industry, rental cars, food and taverns, etc. It also creates many good-paying blue-collar jobs from builders to drivers to caterers." Fields and other industry insiders like Steve Grover of Montana Studios and line producer/production manager Chris Cronyn all believe lots of significant productions will now begin shooting in Montana. [Missoulian]

Women’s coworking space to open in Bozeman’s Cannery District

When Christina Calabrese heard about a women’s coworking space opening in New York City, she said she felt homesick for the city for the first time since moving to Montana. “It seemed like such a valuable way of getting people together,” she said. Calabrese, who works in real estate in Big Sky, said she has missed the networking and relationship-building opportunities more prevalent in bigger cities. After talking to more women, she found others felt the same way and decided to found a women’s coworking space in the Cannery District with her partner, Amanda Diehl. After doing research, the two women saw a need. There are more than 1,900 women-owned businesses in Bozeman, according to the 2012 Survey of Business Owners, and more than 10,000 working women, according to the 2011-2015 American Community Survey Population Estimate. Called Sky Oro, the coworking space will be for remote workers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. Working professionals and stay-at-home moms alike can sign up to be members and attend the multiple monthly events it will put on. We personally know these two awesome boss ladies and are so excited to see them launch and grow Sky Oro in our local community! [Bozeman Chronicle]

Billings hydroponic farms, one using fish 'waste' as fertilizer, allow fresh greens to be harvested year-round

Veronaka Evenson of Billings-based Swanky Roots and other upstart farmers wanted to change how local greens are grown and sold in Montana and are making strides in providing organically grown produce that is healthier than imported produce and is also capable of being harvested fresh year-round. Using the growing technique hydroponics, produce is cultivated completely through water rather than soil. Nutrients are added to the water using decomposed food waste like discarded egg shells and vegetable peelings. Both businesses believe this is only the beginning for sustainable crops in Montana. Through groups like Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society and Yellowstone Valley Food Hub business can pull resources from local farms and businesses for widespread distribution. Additionally, business service provider 406 Market works with several farms to create connections between distributors, manufacturers and consumers. Billings-based Swift Microgreens co-founder Jessica Hart pointed out how these partnerships, along with new business ventures, are opening the door for future avenues of sustainable production. These emerging businesses are still relatively young and are met with unique challenges such as a greater need for electrical power and a slower process for maintenance. Both greenhouses alluded to other approaches such as biodigestion, anaerobic digestion and regenerative agriculture as solutions in the future. But, these small-scale operations are thinking big ideas in the future. [Billings Gazette]

Next Frontier Capital announces successful final close of fund II with $38m in LP commitments and 11 of its 12 investments are top Montana employers

With 12 investments to date, Next Frontier Capital (NFC) recently announced the successful final close of its Venture Fund II with $38m in LP Subscriptions. Will Price, Founder and Managing Partner, noted, "The final close enables us to continue to execute on our mission to invest in companies of impact, utility, and value. With the final close complete, we turn our attention to a healthy pipeline of Fund II prospective investments, while maintaining focus on building value across our ten Fund I companies and our two Fund II investments to date, Ataata and onXMaps (hiring). We are humbled by the LP’s vote of confidence, which we attribute to the value our founders and management teams are creating." Les Craig, General Partner, noted that “the influx of capital, totaling $92m into our companies to date, is making it possible for Montana founders to build, fund, and scale industry leading companies that are competing on a national stage." In addition to Fund II’s investments to date, Fund I’s portfolio includes SiteOne Therapeutics, Submittable (hiring), Clearas, Quiq (hiring on The Work Spot), Orbital Shift (hiring), IronCore Labs (hiring), Phoenix Labs (hiring), Blackmore Sensors (hiring), OppSource, and Remix Labs. Eleven of the twelve NFC investments are top employers in Montana. “The job creation and economic catalyst that Next Frontier Capital has provided for Montana continues to demonstrate how much needed risk capital can drive innovation and growth in our tech sectors,” said Stan Abel, President and Chief Executive Officer of SiteOne Therapeutics and Chairman of the Montana Bioscience Alliance. The diverse portfolio of the firm demonstrates the excellent investment opportunities in Montana. [Next Frontier Capital]

Montana organization HRDC awarded $500K for tiny home village

Bozeman-based Human Resource Development Council (hiring) has been awarded a $500,000 contract to develop a village of 200-square-foot homes for people who are homeless. Fannie Mae announced recently that Bozeman’s HRDC was among the five winners in a competition looking for innovative proposals addressing affordable housing and health. The council has announced, more than two years ago, the goal of building a tiny home village in Bozeman that would offer stable housing as well as job and health services. Community Development Director Tracy Menuez says the council aims to have something on the ground by the last quarter of the contract's two-year deadline. [The Virginian Pilot]

U.S. Small Business Administration opens its first satellite office in Billings

By teaming up, officials from two federal departments hope their small business support programs can reach the farthest flung corners of Eastern Montana. The U.S. Small Business Administration has partnered with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to open a satellite office in Billings to serve entrepreneurs and small business owners in Billings and across Eastern Montana. [Billings Gazette]

Fresh off a $530M round, Aurora acquires Bozeman-based lidar startup Blackmore

Late last month, Aurora, the self-driving car startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, acquired the Bozeman-based lidar company Blackmore (hiring). The Blackmore purchase follows another smaller, and previously unknown, acquisition of 7D Labs that occurred earlier this year. Aurora’s larger Blackmore acquisition comes on the heels of its $530 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital and “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Aurora did not disclose the terms of the deal. Blackmore, which has 70 employees was a seeming oddball choice amongst the Silicon Valley scene, but in the world of autonomous vehicles (and in military circles), Blackmore is well-known and has been considered an acquisition target for some time. Two funding rounds in 2016 and 2018 that brought in backers like BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures raised Blackmore’s profile. (The company has raised $21.5 million). Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, was looking at the company last year, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. But it’s the company’s tech, which has been under development for nearly a decade, that got Aurora CEO Chris Urmson’s attention. Blackmore is one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar. That kind of consolidation will likely continue, Blackmore CEO Reibel predicted, in part because it’s challenging for lidar companies to “go it alone.” The acquisition of Blackmore is just one example in the past two years of lidar startups either announcing large equity and debt rounds or being snapped up by companies developing autonomous vehicle technology. [TechCrunch]

National Geographic names the Reserve a Last Wild Place

National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration since 1888, investing in bold people and transformative ideas to increase understanding of our world and generate solutions for a healthy, more sustainable future for generations to come. National Geographic’s ultimate vision is a planet in balance. To help move toward that goal, National Geographic has launched a decade-long initiative to help protect the last wild places on our planet. To ensure that the natural resources that sustain life on Earth are protected in perpetuity, National Geographic is partnering with leading conservation organizations that have proven track records in securing large landscapes and have made lifelong commitments to protecting specific regions of the world. As a partner in National Geographic’s Last Wild Places initiative, American Prairie Reserve (hiring on The Work Spot) and National Geographic are working to capture best practices; amplify the scale of conservation efforts like these; and jointly develop and share tools, technology, and training that will greatly increase impact in the broader conservation sector. [American Prairie Reserve]

St. Pat's Hospital announces plans for new 'multi-million' dollar medical office building in Missoula

St. Patrick Hospital, operated by Providence Health and Services Montana (hiring), announced this week that it will break ground this fall on a new medical office building near downtown Missoula. According to Providence Montana chief executive Joyce Dombrouski, “With patient demand outpacing our capacity, expanding our footprint at Providence St. Pat’s downtown Missoula campus will enable us to continue to provide quality care to enhance access and meet the needs of Western Montana residents.” Dombrouski also sits on the board of the Missoula Economic Partnership and said the new building might spur more investment in the area. She said the new building sends a signal to potential employers in Missoula that the healthcare industry is strong here, which helps attract talented employees. And while she doesn't expect Providence to add any full-time employees as a result of the new building, she said it will provide temporary Montana construction jobs and increase the hospital's capacity for seeing patients. [Missoulian]