Push for “innovation ecosystem” gains momentum – and ideas – in Missoula

International delegates including Maria Mikkonen, left, and Sini Liu, center, discuss their successes in building an innovation ecosystem between Aalto University and Espoo in Finland during the Innovate UM conference in Missoula on Wednesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

More than one analogy was used Wednesday to describe the third annual Innovate UM conference held in downtown Missoula, be it planting the seeds of tomorrow or rowing with all oars in the same direction.

Whatever your pleasure, leaders from a number of sectors, cities and nations agreed on this: It’s the right moment in time to invent the next chapter in Missoula’s future.

“We have a really exciting opportunity as innovators, as change makers, as members of the community, to begin thinking about how we might grow and nurture this existing, vibrant innovation ecosystem here in Missoula,” said Holly Truitt, founding director of the Broader Impacts Group in Missoula. “Our work today is to think about the exquisite alignment that can happen when all sectors work together.”

More than 100 participants representing local government, the University of Montana, national corporations and small local businesses gathered to imagine that future, one where longstanding boundaries between institutions are erased and innovation is both encouraged and, perhaps, incentivized.

It is, Mayor John Engen suggested, about getting intentional in designing the community’s future.

“Austin, Texas, is the musical capital of the United States, and you want to know why? Engen said. “They say they are. They set their intentions, and that’s what we’re here for today.”

Though the “innovation” concept remains somewhat esoteric, it’s expected to result in a concrete plan later this year. That could take a number of forms, from an “innovation corridor” spanning the city, to incubating startups, developing entrepreneurs and creating “inspired classrooms.”

“The city and UM are damned serious about working together, about planning together, recognizing what we mean to one another and all that we share, and how we share those assets,” Engen said. “My hope is that by the end of this day, we build a relationship, a plan, and we commit to one another that the University of Montana doesn’t have borders.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, as well as Scott Whittenburg, vice president of research and creative scholarship, shared similar sentiments.

Earlier this year, Whittenburg unveiled what’s loosely envisioned as an innovation corridor spanning the city from the Mountain Campus to the headquarters of Blackfoot Communications, which launched its C2M beta innovation lab earlier this month.

As it stands, Whittenburg said, Missoula remains divided by the Clark Fork River, both geographically and philosophically. The old way of thinking has made it hard for both people and ideas to cross that divide.

“Part of what we’re trying to accomplish today is to get the university and Missoula, both the city and the county, to work better together in planning,” Whittenburg said. “There’ so much more we can do if we start doing it together. It’s about joining the university, the city and the county together in a common process.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen, right, and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar discuss their plans to remove boundaries between the campus and the city, and other steps in creating an innovation ecosystem.

The innovation concept has been deployed with success in other communities, including San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Helsinki, Finland, which blends its students, research and companies in “design factories” to encourage co-creation, interaction, testing, experimentation and prototyping.

A delegation from Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, offered observations on Missoula and detailed their own successes at home.

“The design factor is really branded as an experimental learning platform,” said Maria Mikkanen with the Aalto Design Factory. “It’s really a safe place, a playground for these great ideas to be developed further.”

Other ideas launched in Finland began from humble beginnings, such as the school’s lack of entrepreneurial studies. That prompted students set out for Stanford and MIT where they observed a fully developed entrepreneurial ecosystem, where large corporations and small startups pull together in a common direction.

With the seed planted, the students returned to Finland and convinced the university president to open an old warehouse. They invited a motivational speaker, sparking what has grown to become the largest student-run entrepreneurial society in Europe.

Other innovative ideas at Aalto include Junction – a hackathon that challenges students to create a working prototype – and Startup Sauna, a student-run accelerator that includes a deep pool of coaches.

“The great thing about these coaches is that they’re real entrepreneurs, angel investors, work with venture capitalists or other industry experts, but they all do it pro bono,” said Sini Liu, a member of the Espoo Innovation Garden. “We also have Slush – Europe’s biggest startup conference. We created Slush to connect these startup investors and startups together.”

Missoula has its share of startup incubators and entrepreneurial mentors, including MonTEC, Blackstone LaunchPad at UM, 1 Million Cups and Hellgate Venture Networks, among others.

But as the community looks to break down barriers and build a cohesive innovation ecosystem, new partnerships and a deeper commitment will be needed to turn those tasks into reality.

“The mayor and I were together with a small team of his and a university team a few weeks ago, and we said we need to build bridges across the Clark Fork and knock down every single barrier, real or imagined,” said Bodnar.

“There are many ways we can do that – partnerships in terms of what we’re talking about here today, or designing our curriculum to best serve the needs we jointly see emerging,” Bodnar added. “The reality is, we can have a tremendous impact when we plan together and we’re intentional about what the city and university are doing to create an innovative ecosystem.”