Growing Life Science and Biotech in Montana

Montana’s life sciences industry is thriving. With biotech companies clustered around the state’s major universities and an ever-expanding job market, the potential for opportunity matches the unique quality of life that only Montana can provide. Pharma’s Almanac Editor in Chief David Alvaro, Ph.D., spoke to Sharon Peterson, the Executive Director of the Montana Bioscience Alliance, who has witnessed the growth in the state’s industry over the last 15 years. She explains why now is an especially key time to be a part of life sciences in Montana and her vision for the future of the state’s numerous startups.

David Alvaro (DA): Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and current role at Montana Bioscience Alliance?

Sharon Peterson (SP): I actually spent 25 years working for the U.S. Senate for Senator Max Baucus from Montana as his state director. He then became Chairman of the Finance Committee, during which time I learned a lot about health care, including Medicare and Medicaid.

Following this role, I was recruited to help form the Montana Bioscience Alliance in 2004. It has continued to grow annually, and I’ve been there since the beginning.  

DA: Can you expand on the history of Montana Bioscience Alliance, including its original vision and mission and how that has evolved to where it is today?

SP: Our mission statement has remained the same despite being refined over the years; we connect the state’s biotechnology companies, clinics, universities, entrepreneurs, laboratories, and hospitals. Montana is a large state with many health corridors. However, when we first started, people were not networked with each other and would seek out partners in other states before turning locally. Montana’s life sciences industry is still not well-publicized — but we aim to turn this around.

We formed the Montana Bioscience Alliance in response to a study conducted by the governor indicating the growth potential for health-related industry in the state. We then started actively contacting people and recruiting members — and it’s only continued to expand.

DA: Is the state’s bioscience industry clustered around a few key cities or spread across the state?

SP: It’s clustered around our major research universities, which are in Missoula, with the University of Montana, and Bozeman, which is Montana State University. There is another pocket near Missoula at Hamilton, where Rocky Mountain Labs, which is a NIH facility, is located, and GlaxoSmithKline has a manufacturing facility there. That is the major area where we’re trying to push for an expansion.

In Billings, which is in eastern Montana, we have a huge medical corridor and several research facilities. A common path is for a university professor is to get a patent and then form a small company while continuing to teach.

DA: Is there more representation among university spinoffs and young biotech companies? Do the bigger players have a presence in the state?

SP: GlaxoSmithKline is our largest member, and they’re in Hamilton, Montana. A local resident, Edgar Ribi, started Ribi Immunochem, which was acquired by a company that was eventually acquired by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). They just invested over $100 million in their new facility, which will produce the adjuvant for the Shingrix vaccine as well as the HPV vaccine. GSK is internationally renowned for its adjuvant offering, and the company is active with the Montana Bioscience Alliance.

A few years ago, GSK closed their research and development business at the facility to strictly manufacture, and thus let their research people go. The former staff moved on to the University of Montana in Missoula and have since founded Inimmune, which is focused on allergy, autoimmune diseases, and cancer research and is now up to 60 employees.

DA: In a lot of cases where there’s a hub that’s spinning out of a university, you end up with a cluster of similar companies because they’ve originated from a single department. Has that been the case in Montana, or do companies represent the spectrum of possibilities within bioscience?

SP: It extends across the spectrum of possibilities. Inimmune’s conducting research in several different areas, including oncology. There are a few spin-off companies dedicated to cancer research in Bozeman. Another company called FYR Diagnostics is focused on COVID-19 testing, which has contributed to their expansion. There’s also Two Bear Capital, which is an investment firm in Flathead Valley that has contributed funding to those companies and encouraged them to stay in Montana.

DA: How have things been trending recently? Is there more growth for certain types of companies or an acceleration of development overall?

SP: There have been significant changes over the last few years, and COVID especially contributed to this shift. Our life sciences companies were deemed essential, and they took on this responsibility by increasing their outputs and working harder. Receiving an influx of investment capital in this state has also been a critical difference-maker, and I’m sure the industry will only continue to flourish.

There was an incubator formed a few years ago called MonTEC that helped a lot of our startups advance; however, it is now full and looking to expand. Although we get a lot of contact from companies that want to move to Montana, there is limited lab space.

DA: What is Montana’s government is doing to encourage bioscience or new industry investment overall?

SP: The state is actually very active. Montana has a program that offers a payout for workforce training. We also have a matching grant program for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs and, in 2019, we were the first in the nation for the percentage of successful SBIR applications, beating out California. There’s an organization in Bozeman called TechLink, which aids in helping candidates fill out SBIR and STTR applications, which has been quite successful. When we first started the Montana Bioscience Alliance, people would ask me about available jobs and I couldn’t respond with certainty, but now there is a strong demand — and there’s tremendous competition for lab techs  

DA: What are the reasons why someone might want to move to Montana for work? Likewise, why would a business owner want to establish their company in Montana and take advantage of the available workforce?

SP: We enjoy a high quality of life. On Inimmune’s website, they show pictures of the staff going out fishing in the Clark River, which is adjacent to the facility. Another perk is that our population is comparatively small, so the drive to work is short. The mountains are right nearby, allowing for recreational outdoor opportunities. Most Montana folks have a great workforce ability; meaning that we have people who work hard. Again, that same Inimmune video highlights students continuing research, which is another option. The universities have had to expand their workforce, and the two-year colleges are offering certificates in bioscience.

We currently have 4,200 jobs in Montana in the bioscience industry, that pay an average of $85,000. That’s a lot higher than most salaries in Montana, and some are much more than that. 

DA: Is there anything else you can tell me about any particular initiatives that are going on and what your current strategic goals are?

SP: The Montana Bioscience Alliance was fortunate enough to receive a Cluster Initiative Grant from the Small Business Administration. The goal of that grant is to expand bioscience businesses in the state, which has been successful so far. We put out a directory annually that locates the bioscience businesses. We also have an initiative right now that we put together with seven Montana cities to expand lab space, as that’s been an issue.

However, above all, having capital in place is a constant challenge. While we want to be able to grow these businesses and expand, we don’t want the companies to be acquired and then move out of state.

DA: There’s a distribution of bioscience hubs across the country at different levels of maturity. When you think about your goals for Montana, are there any other states that you look to as models?

SP: When we first started the Bioscience Alliance, we were mentored by Colorado Bioscience. We’re the state affiliate for the national BIO organization, and we’re also a part of the Council of State Bioscience Associations — so we mentor and are mentored. When we first started, we worked closely with Colorado and Washington State. They were both bigger and had more activity, but we participated in investment conferences and the like.

Now we work more with New Mexico, Utah — the Rocky Mountain states that are smaller and expanding. The Council of State Bioscience Associations has been really wonderful for us. We formed in 2004, and we joined BIO in 2005. At that time, there might be 15 people in attendance for a meeting at the Council of State Bioscience Association — now that engagement is closer to 100.

DA: Can you tell me about the Montana Bioscience Alliance Hall of Fame?

SP: Maurice Hilleman, who developed the vaccine for measles and mumps and saved millions of lives, grew up in Miles City, Montana and got his four-year degree at Montana State College, which is what it was called at that time. He kept his Montana values throughout his whole career. There’s a Maurice Hilleman scholarship at Montana State University for students interested in immunization. More notable figures include Irv Weisman from Great Falls, Montana, who is famous for his work in stem cells out of Stanford; he got his start as an intern at the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls. Leroy Hood is also from Montana originally. The latest notable figure is Dr. Marshall Bloom, who runs the NIH facility in Hamilton and is a fabulous person. He’s also a famous fly fisherman and writes articles about the sport.

DA: You mentioned how investment in the space was impacted by COVID. What else can you tell me about what the pandemic was like in Montana, the path to recovery, and the broader impacts?

SP: The situation has been difficult, because we have a lot of folks who don’t believe in the vaccines. The hospitals have been full and overflowing with people in hallways. The situation also became completely politicized. The mandate just came through, so it’ll be interesting to see.

However, testing and receiving the vaccines to start with was a real challenge because of how they were rolled out. Even those who are immunocompromised had to fight for an appointment. The testing was also difficult in the beginning, but now that is much improved. As a silver lining, our enterprises benefited and grew; there’s a group out of Bozeman that does wastewater testing to measure COVID rates that has been very successful because of the pandemic.

DA: Over the next decade, what do you anticipate is very likely to happen regarding the bioscience industry, and what do you hope to happen beyond that?

SP: I expect we’ll continue to expand. There are more jobs in Montana year over year. I don’t know if we’ll be able to recruit more companies into Montana, but it’s a definite possibility, especially as more people start companies.

I believe that we’ll increase the lab space all over the state, and companies will grow in places like Billings and Great Falls. I’m hopeful that we’ll demonstrate the state’s possibilities by advancing new technologies, platforms, and therapies. Some of these biotechs are starting clinical trials, and we hope that these scientists will soon be added to Montana’s list of notable figures.

DA: Are there any other significant industries in the state that compete for talent with bioscience?

SP: We have a sizeable Bozeman population that specializes in photonics, because it is taught at Montana State University. However, the industries are largely complementary, and a photonics background benefits bioscience overall.

DA: Is there anything else you’d like to add as a final thought?

SP: I can’t stress enough what a great place Montana is and how everyone should consider the life and industry here. We’re exempt from the problems that some of the big cities have, though we have myriad opportunities. Especially now, there is so much momentum in life sciences — and it’s only going to accelerate.

Sharon Peterson

Sharon Peterson is the Executive Director of the Montana BioScience Alliance. The Alliance serves as the hub for Montana’s biotechnology companies, entrepreneurs, laboratories, hospitals, clinics and universities to commercialize new technologies and to start, grow and sustain globally competitive bioscience companies – ultimately to create high-quality jobs and economic opportunity in Montana. In this role Sharon has also collaborated with and mentored other bioscience organizations in the Mountain and Plains states. Sharon served as a Founder and Director of Leadership Montana from 2003-2011. Leadership Montana is a statewide effort to develop a sustainable network of leaders who share a passion for Montana and a commitment to the future of the state.

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