Priming the Pump UM research and development help fuel Montana's economy
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A Closer Look Briefs
Back Talk UM researcher earns highest U.S. honor for young scientists
When he first came to The University of Montana, Associate Professor David Opitz helped NASA count volcanoes on Venus. It would take a skilled scientist at least 10 years of constant work to map all the volcanoes in NASA’s 30,000 digital images of the superheated planet, so Opitz, an expert on artificial intelligence and machine learning, was tasked to write computer software that could automate the process. This would require software that recognizes which little ones and zeros in the digital images actually add up to volcanoes — a program that “learns” from its mistakes and becomes better at its task over time.
The 35-year-old Helena native met with some success, and a partner convinced him the new technology could have many applications closer to home. Thus Visual Learning Systems was born in 1999, and the company already employs 12 people at various levels. The firm’s award-winning Feature Analyst software distinguishes fine details in satellite images, automating a task once performed with less accuracy and much more slowly by people. Sixty percent of sales have been to the government, especially the Department of Defense.
“This has become a second job to me,” Opitz says, “and I’ve learned that the initial idea is just 2 percent of getting into business. But I really think we have good potential for growth.”
Another company spawned by UM research, Purity Systems Inc., markets a resin that preferentially removes heavy metals dissolved in liquid streams. The product’s inventor, UM chemistry department Chair Ed Rosenberg, said the resin has applications for mining, electroplating and environmental cleansing.
Rosenberg says Purity Systems could lead to more environmentally benign mining, since the resin removes metal without smelting. The product already is being tested at mines in Australia and Chile.
He says the company now employs more than a dozen workers, and more jobs could be on the way. “I could see a company like this easily employing 50 to 100 employees,” he says. “If we could land one commercial installation, that could put us over the top.”
business in Montana
See related story: UM Research and the Economy
UM’s economic development guru is Jon “Tony” Rudbach, assistant vice president for research and economic development. It’s his job to move the University’s intellectual properties from the laboratory to private-sector businesses — a process called technology transfer.
He says UM strives to create technology-based businesses for Montana, which pay more, are more environmentally friendly and require a skilled workforce, so the jobs can’t easily be exported to other countries for cheap labor once the companies become profitable.
“We try to use our resources to develop wealth for the state of Montana,” Rudbach says. “We have a lot of entrepreneurs and good ideas in this state, and we need to support and nurture them.”
He says UM research has produced more than 20 U.S. patents that already have spun off six or more new Montana businesses, firms such as Visual Learning Systems. Many of these patents were produced by UM’s Shafizadeh Rocky Mountain Center for Wood and Carbohydrate Chemistry, which has converted natural carbohydrates into a variety of compounds. One example is a larch tree extract that protects food from disease-causing bacteria. That product is made from Libby-area trees, and it was licensed to Larex, a Minnesota company. Rudbach says licensing UM patents generates revenue for the University and its faculty inventors.
He says Montana State University-Bozeman has been a leader in generating new businesses, mainly because of its engineering school and Advanced Technology Park, which houses and assists new or expanding companies. Rudbach says UM will contribute more in the future with the recent opening of the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC), a new business incubator designed to help businesses realize their goals.