The Union of Town and Gown

Montana State University and Bozeman, Mont.


Montana State University and Bozeman, Mont.
City population:
37,981
MSU student population: 12,369
University employees: 2,992
Metro area small businesses: 4,357
Nearest major airport: Salt Lake City International (340 miles)

For many, moving west means facing the Montana Compromise: You can live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, but you'll have to write off any thoughts of a livable income. Bozeman and MSU are working to overcome that. The university, through its Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West, is tapping into the state's independent streak: Montana has one of the largest shares of small businesses and self-employed people in the nation. Since it was founded in 2001, the facility's students have provided 10,000 hours of consulting advice to 40 local companies, says center director Scott Bryant. The center's efforts haven't yet stemmed the brain drain--roughly half of MSU students still follow their careers out of state. But Bozeman is rapidly solidifying its place as the entrepreneurial hotbed of the Northern Rockies in hopes that its homespun entrepreneurs can live in Big Sky Country and still make the mortgage payment.

Home on the Ranch
Thirty years ago, Montana State University had the foresight to set aside 90 acres of land as a technology park to help commercialize the university's research. But spinoff companies were few and far between. So the MSU Foundation funded an independent incubator--TechRanch, which launched in 2000--to help get things in gear. The foundation made TechRanch independent of the university to keep it nimble, and to bring in fresh leadership. "They felt it was better to have an entrepreneur running the show as opposed to an academician," says John O'Donnell, executive director of TechRanch. That freedom has allowed TechRanch to fast-track companies based on university research and fund startups that come to it from outside the ivory tower, helping set the foundation for a vibrant tech economy in a mountain paradise. "Kids that grow up on farms and ranches work hard. When something breaks, they don't call a committee or a consultant--they fix the problem," O'Donnell says. "With the internet, MSU and TechRanch programs, people here can have their cake and eat it too. There's an amazing quality of life--and a shot at swinging for the fences."

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Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the October 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Union of Town and Gown.

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