“The Mountains and Plains Innovation Alliance, by coordinating state and university investments in research, training, and business development, aims to attract these once-in-a-generation federal investments to the region.”

Thirty years ago, Bozeman, Montana hosted five small optics and photonics technology companies. Since then, wise investments by Montana State University and the local community have made Bozeman one of the largest hubs for optics and photonics work nationally, with more than 40 companies and a similar number of faculty and research staff at the University working to develop and deploy the latest in laser, light, and sensor technologies.

The optics and photonics cluster in Bozeman, unfortunately, is a rare example of rural mountain west and plains communities developing the technologies that will, increasingly, shape the economy of the next fifty years.

A newly forged alliance among 13 colleges and universities in five contiguous northern plains and rocky mountain states seeks to change that. Through the Mountains and Plains University Innovation Alliance, research-focused colleges and universities in Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming will leverage existing research, education, and training programs to boost their collective ability to support the expansion of high-tech innovation and industry in the region.

“Along with my colleagues in Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, I’m thrilled to announce the formation of this partnership among so many incredible institutions,” said Montana Commissioner of Higher Education, Clayton Christian. “Each institution brings its own strengths and capabilities, including incredible research talent and expertise. By working together and leveraging shared knowledge, I strongly believe we can expand our high-tech industry and economic growth for our states as well as the region.” 

Located far from the traditional “knowledge hubs” of large urban areas with a high concentration of tech workers, the states that comprise the Alliance have begun to attract highly skilled workers drawn to the region’s livability and comparative economic advantages. These demographic shifts paired with a new national policy focus on diversifying the economy through directing resources toward states with more rural and dispersed populations will position the Alliance to attract federal grants and other large funding sources. 

In Missoula, Montana, biotechnology is increasingly looking like a candidate as the state’s next major technology cluster. Already, Montana ranks 3rd for the growth in bioscience research and development, and small Montana companies have had the highest success rate nationally for bioscience Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, the premiere federal program to help small businesses commercialize high tech.  

One driver of this success is the University of Montana’s MonTEC business incubator, which provides facilities and support for companies ranging from startups to multi-million-dollar enterprises. One of these firms, Innimune, raised $22 million dollars in venture capital in 2020, the largest venture fundraising haul in Montana history to that point, to grow its work developing a new generation of vaccines and therapies for rare diseases, often in close partnership with the University’s Center for Translational Medicine. Together, Innimune and the University are working on new applications for vaccine technologies, including vaccines to treat severe allergies and even root causes of opioid addiction.

These developments in Montana align with a new national level goal. Federal lawmakers, when they passed the landmark CHIPS and Science Act this past summer, set goals to build a more diverse economy by providing high-tech and innovation-based investments in states with more rural and dispersed populations. This should direct new federal research and development dollars increasingly towards rural states that have been left behind by the high-tech boom to invest in technology ecosystems. 

The Mountains and Plains Innovation Alliance, by coordinating state and university investments in research, training, and business development, aims to attract these once-in-a-generation federal investments to the region. The result, the universities hope, will be several new technology hubs in the region that will not only mean new businesses and jobs, but also exciting academic opportunities for students at nearby campuses, with clear avenues to work in high-paying tech sectors after graduation.

“This is a paradigm shift for research and especially innovations related to digital technology,” said North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott. “It will help diversify the region and economy by achieving scale in a way that the individual states might not achieve acting alone.”

To date, members of the Alliance have already connected researchers across the region to explore opportunities in autonomous systems, advanced materials science, quantum computing, forest and rangeland management, cybersecurity, predictive and precision agriculture, and other fields. Moving forward, Alliance members plan to engage tribal, state government, and industry association leadership in a broader conversation to identify shared needs and focus areas for the region’s emerging high technology economy.

Mountains and Plains University Innovation Alliance members:



North Dakota

South Dakota