Economic Development Administration awards $41 million grant to regional tech hub focused on critical technologies for U.S. national security

Wednesday Jul. 3rd, 2024

– A regional technology hub focused on photonics and smart sensors, of which Montana State University is a founding member, will receive a $41 million federal grant to help create tech jobs across Montana.

The grant to Montana’s Headwaters Regional Technology and Innovation Hub comes from the Economic Development Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. It’s one of 12 grants totaling $504 million awarded to tech hubs across the country.

In October, the EDA named Montana a Regional Technology and Innovation Hub. It was one of 31 such designations across the nation and aims to promote growth by strengthening the region’s capacity to build, commercialize and deploy critical technologies.

As part of the designation, MSU joined a statewide consortium of companies; state, local and tribal governments; regional economic development organizations; and other academic institutions to develop the Headwaters Tech Hub. The hub’s goals are to accelerate the timeline from product introduction to market adoption, foster businesses that can compete and thrive in the global market, and help prepare Montanans to enter the region’s expanding tech workforce.

Alison Harmon, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development, noted that MSU’s faculty and staff are leaders in smart photonic sensor systems, which is the core technology for the Headwaters hub.

“Montana State has more than three decades of research and graduate education in optics and photonics, and that expertise has nurtured the growth of a strong photonics industry that has spawned many companies and, importantly, jobs in the Gallatin Valley,” Harmon said. “MSU is excited to be an important part of this grant and to take the next steps in advancing these technologies in fields such as autonomous cars and precision agriculture.”

“This is an incredible opportunity for Montana State University’s top-tier research enterprise and longstanding expertise to help deepen the state’s technology economy, provide critical technologies for our nation, and promote strong, good-paying careers for our graduates,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “Our students, who will be the next leaders of Montana’s industries, will benefit tremendously from the opportunities this grant will provide.”

“Montana’s universities are playing a key role in developing the technologies that will shape our future. In recent years, we have been national leaders in the growth of university research, which enriches our students' education and leads directly to new business and jobs in Montana,” said Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. “Our MUS institutions have been a dedicated partner with the Headwaters Tech Hub and look forward to achieving new levels of national and global importance for Montana, that will transform fields ranging from agriculture to national defense to resource management. I couldn’t be more pleased with the Tech Hub’s success.”

“Through the Tech Hubs program, we are maintaining our competitive edge by advancing America’s leadership in commercializing critical emerging tech sectors,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in a press release announcing the national funding. “And we’re leveraging the diverse talent and resources that currently exist across the country to achieve this goal.”

The new $41 million grant will go toward implementing projects that include creating technology testbeds in rugged terrain, precision agriculture and roadway settings, increasing four-year degree opportunities in related fields and training skilled workers, including helping Indigenous students find pathways to careers in smart-sensing. Smart-sensing is the use of lasers and imaging systems with computer chips and intelligent algorithms to detect any number of things, from the quality of grains to unseen and unwanted methane emissions.

The Tech Hub program is a result of the federal CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester secured an important provision in that law to ensure the Tech Hubs program included rural states, which paved the way for Montana to be included. Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines was a co-sponsor of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, also known as the Endless Frontier Act, which became the CHIPS and Science Act.

MSU’s research on lasers and other optical tools goes back to the 1980s and has helped spin off dozens of local companies, including some now making sensors for guiding self-driving trucks, mapping invasive weeds and more. Those and related technologies could allow for drones suited to applications in agriculture, self-driving farming machinery and other tools that could benefit rural communities, said Joseph Shaw, distinguished professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering and a member of the Montana consortium team.

“MSU’s decades of research and investment in optical technologies has put the campus on the optics and photonics map,” said Shaw, who also directs the university’s Optical Technology Center, or OpTeC. “This new grant will not only help make Montana a hub of these technologies but also will also help companies and potential students answer the question of where to go when they want to learn about optics and smart photonic sensors: Montana State University.”

Montana State University has previously received funding as part of the federal CHIPS and Science Act. In May 2023, the university announced that it had received two grants from the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines Program, another CHIPS-funded program focused on catalyzing partnerships to positively impact regional economies, accelerate technology development, address societal challenges, advance national competitiveness and create local, high-wage jobs.

The first of those two grants funded research by MSU and its partners into how the region can position itself as a leader in quantum technology, which is set to play a critical role in 21st century communications, computing and other related fields. The university is already part of the MonArk Quantum Foundry, supported by a $20 million NSF grant in 2021 focused on developing the specialized materials needed for quantum devices.

The second Engines grant will let MSU, as part of a project led by the University of North Dakota, explore ways to leverage its expertise in photonics to grow a regional economy for autonomous systems, such as self-driving cars and drones for precision agriculture.