By Missy Lacock, with contributions by Olivia Carney, Joe Fanguy and Patty Cox
This article was originally published in the Bureau of Business and Economic Research’s Montana Business Quarterly, Vol.53, No.4, Winter.
If you’re Joel Henry from Agile Data Solutions, you know it takes a good product and a solid team to see your business succeed in Montana. And in Henry’s case, it takes an extended team that may not be top of mind for most business owners — but it should be.
As with most startups, Henry and a University of Montana student wrote the first version of Agile Data Solutions’ product at their kitchen tables. As a practicing attorney and UM computer science professor and adjunct professor of law, Henry wanted to create a product that would reduce time and costs associated with the legal discovery process. His solution — Agile Data Solutions, to be exact — is a desktop software solution that makes “conceptual searching” possible. The technology hunts through hundreds of thousands of documents and deduces the concept behind keywords (including misspellings and acronyms), saving small- and medium-sized law firms considerable time and money. In only two short years, Agile Data Solutions has widened its market, now offering two products.
Agile Data Solutions is just one example of growing our own. Developing and retaining Montana businesses is critical to Montana’s economy. As a business grows in-state, its money stays in-state, feeding other businesses, creating jobs and contributing to the economic health of Montana.
But starting a business is no simple task. Although his product was market-shifting and patentable, Henry was a first-time business owner. “I had never started a business myself. It was a steep learning curve.”
Luckily, there was a village to help. UM houses several programs that are powerful partners for Montana businesses. Henry’s journey began at Blackstone LaunchPad.
Blackstone LaunchPad: Get Started Here
The Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana helps UM students, alumni, faculty and staff turn their ideas into real-world businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Blackstone is part of an international network of co-curricular and experiential campus programs on more than 15 campuses in six regions nationwide. This network introduces entrepreneurship as a viable career path and helps develop entrepreneurial skills through individualized coaching, ideation and venture-creation support. Since opening in February 2014 as part of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, Blackstone at UM has met with more than 500 people interested in their services.
When Agile Data Solutions was still in its infancy, Henry used Blackstone’s services often. “I literally went there every single week, at least once,” he said.
Blackstone helps businesses refine their business plans and introduces them to members in the business community. Director Paul Gladen connected Henry with several UM business professors. “Those folks gave their time and expertise to guide me and my company in our approach, raising capital and high-tech marketing,” Henry said.
Many current students also use Blackstone’s services. Several clients with student-owned businesses participated in the Fall Startup Pitch Competition, and Evin Oser, co-founder of Montana Root Applications, took home the top prize of $1,500 for his app SolarScreen.co. Blackstone also hosted Missoula’s inaugural InnovateHER business pitch competition, which promoted products or services benefiting women and their families.
In 2015, prize money for Blackstone-hosted competition winners totaled more than $50,000, and Blackstone is looking forward to more events in the upcoming year, including the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge. Pitch competitions are excellent opportunities for budding entrepreneurs to gain experience writing business plans and pitching their businesses and to earn some money toward their startups.
In addition to its competitions, Blackstone also provides early feedback to startups and identifies target audiences and business partners. Regular services include one-on-one consultations, value proposition design workshops, and sessions informing entrepreneurs about legal considerations. Blackstone also hosts speakers about topics such as trademarks, angel investing and marketing.
“Working with LaunchPad was instrumental,” Henry said. “The culmination of [MonTEC’s] activity on campus and LaunchPad coming to campus made me think commercialization was a possibility.”
Montana Technology Enterprise Center: Find a Home
Home to pioneering entrepreneurs, the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC) is affiliated with UM as its technology incubator, providing space, Internet access, conference rooms and video conferencing to fledging businesses. Whether a business is in need of interns, seed funding or business mentoring, MonTEC is the point of connection for entrepreneurs and startups looking to navigate the complex world of service providers and gain access to high-quality resources.
Before the kitchen table, Agile Data Solutions actually began as a research project at UM with several UM students. Even in that early stage, MonTEC President Joe Fanguy filled a critical role as a mentor. “I visited with Joe to see if we could consider moving it to commercialization, and if so, how,” Henry said.
After deciding to pursue commercialization, Henry used a range of MonTEC’s services. “We started at MonTEC as an affiliate, which means we didn’t have an office but we could use their conference rooms for meetings, use their video conferencing, and had a mailbox,” Henry said. “That was really useful and helpful to us, to bring my folks in from working at home and have collaborative sessions. When we did get an office set up, we got a very low-cost office space with power and Internet included, so I could have one bottom-line payment a month.”
Agile Data Services is part of a community of entrepreneurs with early-stage support from MonTEC, which serves companies employing more than 100 people collectively and that have raised more than $30 million in private investment in the past three years.
MonTEC also has assisted many successful businesses that have emerged from research discoveries aimed at changing the world. Sunburst Sensors, for example, competed with 24 teams from around the world for two years in the XPRIZE for ocean health. It took home both grand prizes for pH sensors that measure ocean acidification, receiving $1.5 million total in awards. Like Agile Data Solutions, the core technology was developed in a UM lab, and now the company is a flourishing Montana business with recognition around the world.
Rivertop Renewables is another company thriving off innovation developed at UM. Rivertop has commercialized technology that can produce sustainable, high-performing and renewable chemicals from natural sugars. The company currently develops products for the detergent and petroleum industries — $2 billion markets seeking replacement chemicals that fulfill price, performance and sustainability mandates. With Montana winter on the mind, Rivertop’s bio-based corrosion inhibitors also are used in road deicers, a product already purchased by the Montana Department of Transportation. Looking toward the future, 2015 ushered in Rivertop’s first production plant, with plans for product to hit everyone’s dishwasher soon.
While Henry said MonTEC is a low-cost and highly supportive place in which businesses can house their offices, there are also unexpected benefits.
“When you move into MonTEC, you find you’re not alone,” Henry said. “Up and down the hallway are other businesses that are trying to get off the ground and that are facing the same challenges you are. You can collaborate with each other, you can share ideas, and that part is really awesome.”
The benefit of collaboration is significant. As any entrepreneur knows, after all, owning a business has its challenges. Henry said the biggest challenges facing his company are the slow adoption rate of technology into the legal field and the unpredictability of sales month to month.
“There are times when I’m sitting at my kitchen table or my dining room table and I just feel like I’m on an island. But when I’m at MonTEC, I can walk down the hall and say, ‘What did you guys do?’ And then you don’t feel like you’re the only one.”
The Montana World Trade Center: Connect Globally, Prosper Locally
Not all UM programs serving businesses stick so close to the Clark Fork River. Many entrepreneurs like Henry realize the days of businesses being able to focus solely on domestic sales are over.
Most of us know that businesses that export experience faster sales growth and ride out fluctuations in the U.S. economy better than their non-exporting counterparts. After all, more than 70 percent of the world’s purchasing power is located outside of the United States, according to the International Trade Administration. What is less known, however, is that taking goods or services beyond American borders can also provide market intelligence that can inform product and business development — yes, even locally. The problem? Only a handful of Montana businesses can support dedicated international departments. That’s where the Montana World Trade Center (MWTC) comes in.
The World Trade Centers Association is a not-for-profit corporation that encourages world trade and promotes international business relationships. In 91 countries across the globe, there are 327 World Trade Centers engaging in hands-on activities with the tagline, “We grow trade.” Montana’s own branch, MWTC, is located in Missoula as a unique program of UM, specializing in day-to-day business counseling on international markets. For nearly two decades, MWTC has served Montana as a trusted adviser for businesses wanting to connect globally and prosper locally. It serves as an extension of businesses across the state, enhancing their international commercial capabilities.
“Our goal is to prepare companies and to maximize their probability of success in completing international business transactions,” said MWTC Executive Director Brigitta Miranda-Freer.
Among its many services, MWTC helps Montana businesses and entrepreneurs build or carry out international strategies, providing clients with actionable information, prescriptive export strategies, long-term strategic guidance, international market evaluation and project management — in other words, it helps you get your goods and services to diverse markets, from Argentina to the United Kingdom. In 2015 alone, MWTC assisted nearly 70 businesses with their international trade endeavors, Agile Data Solutions among them.
“The Montana World Trade Center has been instrumental in opening a new market for Agile Data Solutions in Canada,” said Henry. “The contacts provided were key — Agile would have struggled to make such contacts as well as have key strategic information allowing us to leverage the subsequent meetings.”
In addition to its client services, MWTC also coordinates annual trade missions, during which it takes Montana businesses into foreign markets and arranges high-level meetings and briefings designed to maximize the probability of closing business deals. MWTC works with participants months in advance to prepare them to be on the ground, informed and confident in-country.
Henry, who accompanied MWTC on its most recent trade mission to Canada in June, was able to deploy demos during the trade mission and returned to Canada in July to plan his first pilot project with Alberta Energy Regulators. That pilot led to a project that began this January.
“The trade mission was fantastic — not only the meetings and events during the trip but also the hands-on assistance MWTC provided to prepare us,” Henry said.
But Henry said MWTC has even more to offer. “We know MWTC will be there for us as we follow up on contracts in this market and explore new markets abroad.”
Other MWTC services include a growing library of online export training courses on topics such as mitigating payment risk and INCOTERMS. Membership in the MWTC also is available, which includes benefits such as export/import readiness assessments, discounted online classes and priority participation in trade missions and other MWTC events. A targeted trade lead program also is planned for 2016.
Tapping international markets for sales can also lead to domestic insights. “Not only are we working with AER, but we have a pilot project in the planning stage with Enmax, the organization that provides energy to the city of Calgary,” Henry said. “We’re helping them go through literally hundreds of thousands of files and pull out the ones that appear most relevant.” Henry is now also in discussions with a U.S. governmental agency to perform the same kind of work. This expansion into another vertical discovered in Canada is an exciting opportunity for Agile Data Solutions, informing its domestic sales strategy.
Even more unique, however, are the unparalleled opportunities MWTC provides to students. As one of only two World Trade Centers in the country housed in a university, MWTC is proud to now offer a practicum for UM students, allowing them to combine hands-on export research for Montana businesses with classwork on export fundamentals such as prioritizing market opportunities, finding and qualifying distributors, completing basic trade documents, getting paid, and securing funding to help companies achieve export goals. During fall semester, for example, students prepared materials for various trade delegates participating in Gov. Steve Bullock’s trade mission to Taiwan and South Korea.
“What an excellent resource for businesses across our state,” Henry said.
Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center: Land a Deal with Uncle Sam
So, what’s next for Agile Data Services? “Our goals are to distribute our software more widely and to show the use of our software in vertical markets outside of law.”
Fortunately, Henry is already making headway into other markets. In addition to Enmax in Canada, Agile Data Solutions has garnered interest from other governmental entities about using its product for Freedom of Information Act requests.
“The Connecticut Attorney General’s Office is working with us on a pilot project that we’re going to start in January regarding the Freedom of Information Act request process,” he said.
The problem is government contracts can be thorny to navigate.
Enter the Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center (Montana PTAC).
Montana PTAC at the UM provides personal, timely advice on contracting with the government. Its mission is to educate and increase economic development in Montana by providing counseling and technical assistance to businesses interested in federal, state and local government contracting. Montana PTAC is one of nine centers across the state and supports enterprises in Missoula, Mineral, Granite, Powell, and Deer Lodge counties.
The best part? The program is funded by UM and a cooperative agreement with the Defense Logistics Agency — which means Montana PTAC’s services are free.
Montana PTAC works in partnership with companies, federal agencies and economic development organizations to ensure Montana’s small businesses are represented in the government marketplace. It helps businesses determine whether government contracting is suitable for businesses, provides guidance in understanding agencies’ buying trends and teaches businesses how to research target markets. Montana PTAC also provides technical assistance by helping businesses get registered at the online portals required to bid, such as the federal System for Award Management and the state of Montana’s vendor portal, eMACS. Services also include review and evaluation of bids and proposals, and the program offers one-on-one counseling, phone consultations and training workshops.
“The government wants to shop local,” said Montana PTAC Government Contracting Adviser Patty Cox. “Montana PTAC can help you connect to these buyers.”
According to usaspending.gov, Montana businesses received more than $484.5 million in federal contract awards in 2015. For UM’s Montana PTAC clients, the average annual awards reached $24 million.
Montana PTAC’s service extends beyond these awards, however, by helping businesses communicate with agencies, secure bonding, submit invoices and understand government contract administration. Montana PTAC demystifies the process of complex government agreements and helps businesses navigate the government marketplace.
Henry met with Montana PTAC the first week of January and is looking forward to the next steps. “I see PTAC as instrumental in helping with my government contracts.”
It Takes a Village
In addition to Blackstone, MonTEC, MWTC and Montana PTAC, UM wants to expand its services assisting businesses to the private sector even more. 2016 will usher in another program hosted by UM, the Small Business Development Center (Missoula Offices). This program will help businesses prepare or fine-tune their business plans, financial management, operations, loan applications and marketing initiatives — another great resource for Montana business owners like Henry.
But growing Montana businesses isn’t just good for Montana business owners. It’s good for Montana. “Retaining and growing companies in-state often yields a much higher return on investment than bringing them in,” Miranda-Freer said. “They already know they want to be here. They already understand quality of life here. Some may just need a bit of assistance in helping their businesses to thrive here.”
As one of those business owners, Henry is seeing the rewards of commercializing a high-quality product in Montana. “The most rewarding thing for me — I’m an engineer at heart —has been to see our software in the hands of a user,” Henry said. “Our software changes their job and removes challenges and frustrations, just makes them so much more efficient and productive.”
However, Henry’s not an island (regardless of how it can feel at his kitchen table), and he didn’t have to do it alone.
“We’re fortunate to live in a state where if you have a need, you have the opportunity to engage with good people who know you by your first name and really want to help you make your business grow,” Miranda-Freer said.
Henry agreed. “From my standpoint, it’s just absolutely amazing how many different individuals and groups in town have been very, very willing to sit down and work with me.”
Sometimes it takes a village. Or, in this case, a university.
For more information about Henry and Agile Data Solutions, visit agileds.net.
Published February 1, 2016