UM: $730K consultation grant kicks in for rural Montana startups

Karl Unterschuetz, outreach and engagement manager for the University of Montana Center for Rural Economic Development, talks with about 30 business-minded attendees at a recent 1 Million Cups networking event in Missoula. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Now that Karl Unterschuetz is on the job, Rural Montana entrepreneurs looking for guidance can ramp up their unusual, creative business ideas.

“The good news is that we’re just now taking the five-year grant out to rural Montana to really foster the high-growth startup culture across Montana,” said Unterschuetz, who already has established connections in Missoula and smaller communities like White Sulphur Springs, Polson, Helmville, Harlowton and Lewistown.

A 5-year, $730,000 grant will aid distressed rural and tribal communities and help them develop sustainable, high-growth “entrepreneurial ecosystems,” according to the rebranded Accelerate Montana, Rural Innovation Initiative (AMRII), formerly the UM Center for Rural Economic Development.

“We’re looking for those with a company that will grow the customer base and revenue base outside of Montana,” said Unterschuetz, a former solar management and tech developer who’s been on the job for six weeks.

UM earned the multi-year grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

After talking to a group of about 30 business-minded people – many of them interested entrepreneurs – at a recent 1 Million Cups session in Missoula, Unterschuetz said the grant money is meant to aid creative business men and women who are bursting with new ideas.

“We’re open to working with anyone anywhere in Montana,” he said. “From the federal standpoint, there’s no exclusion from the Montana cities. From an operational standpoint, we’ll work with mostly outside of the cities. We’ll work with Missoula County if people are interested. But we’ll probably go far afield.”

Unterschuetz said his office is “really wide open” to consulting with different types of businesses, but AMRII is laser-focused on helping “innovative, unproven business models” that may work alongside typical Main Street businesses, such as coffee klatches or yoga studios – those with proven, more typical business models.

“It’s not to say that the Main Street or traditional businesses are passé or outdated,” Unterschuetz added. “But there’s an additional way of doing business in Montana. If they think their business can be bigger than just serving Montana … we are opening people’s minds to that idea.”

He mentioned Missoula tech startups Submittable and Advanced Technology Group, examples of unusual or tech business models, as successful think-outside-the-box companies that are extending their reach. Often, such companies are tech-based business models that haven’t been tried before.

The funding, announced last February, allows the newly created AMRII to broaden the reach of Accelerate Montana, another UM program designed to boost Big Sky businesses from the idea stage all the way to global expansion.

“There are rural problems that can be solved using entrepreneurship … that the traditional urban tech companies may not use,” he said.

Accelerate Montana helps startups and established businesses in Montana and outside U.S. borders at all stages of the development process.

Accelerate Montana organizations collectively reach approximately 700 business and entrepreneurs each year, helping to bring tens of millions of dollars in investment capital, grants and contracts to the state of Montana.

Paul Gladen, Accelerate Montana director, said AMRII specifically provides workshops, training, access to online training materials and resources that cover a wide range of topics for entrepreneurs.

Topics may include what AMRII calls ideation and design thinking, value proposition design, business models, financial modeling, seeking investment funding, foreign direct investment, startup legal essentials, intellectual property, accessing public funds and reaching global markets.

“All these topics can assist local economic development professionals and local entrepreneurs to enhance their understanding and application of early stage entrepreneurship or high-growth frameworks and practices,” said Gladen.

Unterschuetz said one main goal is to help Montanans network across the state.

One upcoming community brainstorming event is scheduled for Glacier Brewing in Polson on Nov. 1, starting at 4:30 p.m. Unterschuetz expects it to be “an innovative, problem-solving session.”

Anyone may attend to discuss what he calls challenges Polson may have, plus more.

“We’ll see if anybody has any interesting ideas percolating in their heads — and see what’s possible,” added Unterschuetz.