BOZEMAN – Montana State University will be part of a new, federally designated regional technology hub focused on photonics and smart sensor technology, research areas in which MSU has decades of experience.

The Economic Development Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has designated the state of Montana a Regional Technology and Innovation Hub. The program is designed to drive regional growth by strengthening the region’s capacity to manufacture, commercialize and deploy critical technologies, according to the program’s website.

The Tech Hub designation and its accompanying strategic development grant will allow the state of Montana to compete for millions of dollars in new federal and private funding to advance smart photonics sensing systems for autonomous systems that can be applied to critical defense, resource management and disaster prevention applications.

Montana was chosen from among nearly 200 applicants to receive one of 31 designations and 29 strategic development grants. Montana State University will be a member of a statewide consortium to develop the Headwaters Regional Technology and Innovation Hub along with companies; state, local and tribal governments; regional economic development organizations; and other academic institutions in the state.

“This designation affirms Montana State University’s status as a top-tier research university,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “Montana State University is excited to offer our expertise in photonics and optics to the Tech Hub, whose goals aligns tightly with Montana State’s own longstanding commitment to serving our state and benefitting our local economies with new technologies and innovations.”

The Tech Hub program was enacted as part 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.

Montana State University’s staff and faculty include leading experts on smart photonic sensing, which is the core technology for the Headwaters Technology Hub, said Alison Harmon, vice president for research and economic development at Montana State University.

“That Montana State University expertise has stimulated the growth of a robust photonics industry in the Gallatin Valley,” Harmon said. “The technologies have wide-ranging applications from autonomous vehicles to precision agriculture.”

“The Tech Hub and Montana State University will help strengthen local economies in Montana and bolster our national security in terms of food, water and energy,” she said. “And we’re very excited about the new opportunities for our students as they engage in workforce preparation to become future industry leaders.”

This isn’t the first funding Montana State University has received as part of the federal CHIPS and Science Act. In May, 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 Montana State University 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 Montana State University, 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.

“The Tech Hub designation is another exciting opportunity for Montana State University,” 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.

“We have world-class expertise in the kind of optical technologies that are the key to making these smart-sensing autonomous systems work,” Shaw said. “Because of that groundwork, Montana State University is in a position where, in just a few years, we’re going to be on the short list of places to go to when you need this kind of technology.”

Montana State University’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 Shaw, who also directs the university’s Optical Technology Center, or OpTeC.

“This is about mapping out how we could help create these technologies with rural applications but also how we can spread the economic benefit around the state and the region to create good high-tech jobs,” Shaw said. “We’re really committed to that.”

- by MSU News Service -

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