#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Paul Gladen, Director of the Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
The “Treasure State” of Montana is rapidly becoming a trove of high-growth startups and innovators. This week, we talked to Paul Gladen of the Blackstone LaunchPad, a university entrepreneurial education program brought to Montana with the help of Senator Jon Tester. Paul believes an educational process that helps legislators understand the needs of the 21st century economy could accelerate startup growth nationwide, as was the case in Montana.
What’s your personal role in the Missoula-area startup ecosystem? How did you get involved working with startups in Missoula?
I have two or three different roles but my “day job” is running the Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana, which is an entrepreneurial program funded through the Blackstone Charitable Foundation that operates on 20 different campuses across the US. I help students, faculty, alumni and staff at the university who want to start a business.
I moved to Montana and co-founded the Hellgate Venture Network almost by accident. Through this experience and some connections at the College of Business at the University of Montana, I got involved with their business plan competition and began to get pulled into the startup ecosystem.
People who had recently moved to town began emailing me, asking how they could get involved in the startup scene here and that eventually led to me being hired as the director of the Blackstone LaunchPad about 4 years ago. In this role, I’ve really been able to help stimulate the growth of the ecosystem. About two years ago, I also helped found the Montana Code School, a coding bootcamp in Missoula and Bozeman that we started to try and bridge the talent gap.
Can you tell us more about what the Blackstone program and other entrepreneurship programs at the University of Montana do? How did this program get started at the University?
Blackstone Charitable Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Blackstone, the investment firm. Several of the firm’s executives including Tony James, the COO, learned of the LaunchPad entrepreneurial education program at the University of Miami and decided they wanted to use the Foundation to bring it to college campuses across the country.
Senator Tester had invited Mr. James to come speak at one of his small business workshops, where he discussed what the Blackstone Charitable Foundation was doing in the entrepreneurial field. As a result, Senator Tester thought that the Blackstone LaunchPad program needed to be brought to Montana, leading to the establishment of LaunchPads at both the University of Montana and Montana State.
These programs are extra-curricular, there are no sort of academic requirements for participation, and it is very entrepreneurially-driven. The mission is to help students explore entrepreneurship as a viable career path, providing them with an alternative to the traditional route and an opportunity to make their own career. Our primary activity is startup coaching. We help them navigate the startup process and help connect them with outside resources they need to succeed (legal, funding, etc).
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened for the Missoula ecosystem in the past year?
A really interesting development is ClassPass, the world’s largest fitness network that gives users access to workout classes at a variety of gyms, selecting Missoula as the location for its next expansion to build out their technology team. This told us that the belief we have in Montana, that you can grow world class technology businesses here, is not crazy. The fact that such a highly successful startup selected Missoula shows that if we continue to build the capacity of a place like Missoula, we can become a real alternative to a place like the Bay Area.
What makes Missoula an ideal place to start a company?
The first would be, it’s just a great place to live. The quality of life is very high, our direct access to the outdoors is unparalleled.
In Missoula and Bozeman, we have two communities anchored by universities and great access to the talent that is coming through them, both students, faculty, and research.
We have a very collaborative, supportive entrepreneurial community. Big cities are more dog eat dog, people here are always asking what they can do to help you. Members of the university community in particular are always trying to connect one another to resources that can help them grow.
What is the biggest challenge you face in Missoula?
Our number one challenge right now is continuing to fuel the talent pipeline. When I first moved here, Montana’s biggest export was its talent, we used to lose a lot of people to big cities and traditional hubs. What we’re going through now is trying to help the students coming through our universities understand that there are great career opportunities here. We are also trying to get the word out to Montanans who have left here and want to come back that the opportunities with successful companies exist.
Survey results just published last week by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance identify that Montana’s tech industry is growing at 9 times the national average but access to talent remains its biggest challenge.
However, there is also a study that the Blackstone LaunchPad did with the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, funded by the Kauffman Foundation on the Missoula/Bozeman ecosystems which validated the belief that we have all of the different characteristics we need for a thriving startup ecosystem.
What are some of the inputs that has helped your ecosystem grow?
One is some early success stories, the most prominent of which is RightNow Technologies, which was sold to Oracle a few years ago. This showed that a successful startup can develop here and it also generated a series of second generation startups who benefitted from RightNow’s success.
The collaborative grassroots effort that has been made in recent years has also been hugely beneficial. Montana is a big state with only about a million people in it, while the physical differences are pretty big, the relationship distances are fairly small. Once people get involved, they are generally able to tap into peer to peer networks as well as local and state government resources.
How involved are your government representatives in the Missoula startup space?
We are much closer to our congressional representatives and the governor than in most states. We have very supportive local economic development agencies that are well integrated into our startup programs. This is especially true here at the University of Montana. They provide a number of entrepreneurial support resources available to students as well as the Missoula community at large. I’m also on the board of the Missoula Economic Partnership, the tight connection between all of the groups and organizations across sectors ensures that we are doing as much as we can to reduce the friction in the process of growing our ecosystem.
From a policy perspective, do you have any “wish list” items for your startup ecosystem?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a policy wonk but one of the areas I think we could do more in is an educational process with government officials to help them understand this transition in the economy. Especially at the State and local level, we find that many are so accustomed to our state’s traditional industries that their policy decisions are more leveraged towards the interests of those industries. An educational process could help them understand the different needs and characteristics of 21st century tech and knowledge-based services industries, so much of which is around skill development and access to capital. We’ve started to do this but we need to continue to ensure that policymakers are better equipped to help stimulate the entrepreneurial economy.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of Montana?
GeoFli - location-based marketing software founded by to U of M students, attended Techstars NYC in 2017
Elebase (Old Town Creative + Interactive) - backend as-a-service content management system with geospatial capabilities
Sellout - ticketing software that facilitates both initial sale, resale, and presale reservations
- Inimmune - Biotech startup focused on the discovery and development of new therapeutics for allergy, autoimmunity, infectious disease, and cancer; roots in a U of M lab