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Montana’s Headwaters Tech Hub gets $41M grant from feds

by BLAIR MILLER Daily Montanan
| July 4, 2024 12:00 AM

The U.S. Department of Commerce and Montana’s U.S. senators announced Tuesday that a technology consortium known as the Headwaters Tech Hub will receive a $41 million grant to help build out jobs within the optical and laser technologies field in four regions of Montana.

Last October, the White House announced the Headwaters Tech Hub, led by Accelerate Montana, was one of 31 consortiums to be designated a Regional Innovation and Technology Hub and would get $500,000 to help launch a strategy.

The hub will involve photonics, which includes optical and laser technology, autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The consortium wants to figure out how to use the technology for self-driving vehicles, LiDAR emission tracking, agriculture and wildfire management, according to its proposal.

Led by Accelerate Montana at the University of Montana, the consortium has 18 members, including the Montana Department of Commerce, the Commissioner of Higher Education the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana University System, Montana State University, Salish Kootenai College and several businesses.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said the $41 million in grant money, which comes from a provision in CHIPS and Science Act Tester supported in 2022, is a Phase 2 investment in the project. Only 11 other tech hubs received Phase 2 funding; including Montana, the hubs will receive about $504 million. Tester had pressed the Biden administration in February to award the Headwaters Tech Hub with another round of money.

“Montana is a big state that can do big things, and we’ve proven that we have what it takes to lead the nation in technological innovation that will ensure American can continue to outcompete countries like China,” Tester said in a statement.

The Headwaters Tech Hub will encompass the Kalispell, Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow and Bozeman regions. The group believes it could create 4,000 new jobs within the photonics industry and continue to grow the sector beyond the current 1,000 jobs. In the group’s application last year, it referenced needing to keep up with similar development in Asia.

“This growing market demand, and the opportunities it creates, exceeds current capacity, both in Montana and nationally, to commercialize and manufacture new technologies and train the skilled workforce needed to support the sector,” the application said. “There is an urgent need for growth in domestic photonics capabilities to offset the rapid shift toward Asia.”

Last October, members of the tech hub said it would give the state a better chance to compete for grant money. The president of the Montana Photonics and Quantum Alliance in October said the tech hub designation marked a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the coalition and industry.

Tester said that is why he’s pushed for the hub and the grant money for several years.

“Bringing good-paying jobs back to the United States, securing our domestic supply chains, and developing next generation technology starts with investments right here in the Treasure State, and I will continue to partner with the Headwaters team to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed,” he said in a statement.

“Sen. Tester has been a critical partner working to ensure that the Headwaters Hub has the resources we need to become a global leader in smart, autonomous, photonic remote sensing technologies,” said Headwaters Executive Director Dr. Tim VanReken. “We agree with Sen. Tester that there is an enormous amount of untapped potential in rural America, and we are grateful for his years-long work that made this transformative award possible.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said the money would help create good-paying jobs in Montana and “help us win the race against China.”

“From optics and photonics to quantum computing, I am grateful to help advance Montana’s ability to contribute even further to the important research, development, and jobs that will help strengthen our national security and help the country stay competitive globally,” Daines said in a statement.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement that Montana “continues to lead the nation in innovation.”

“Thanks to our growing dominance in new and emerging industries like photonics and quantum computing, Montana is quickly becoming the envy of the nation,” Gianforte said. “This investment in Headwaters Hub, alongside our pro-business and pro-jobs policies, will help further make Montana the center of gravity for next generation research and technology, not only in the United States, but around the world.”

Blair Miller is a Helena-based reporter. The Daily Montanan is a nonprofit newsroom.