Missoula, MT (KGVO-AM News) - The University of Montana has been chosen to lead one of the first-ever Regional Innovation Engine awards from the National Science Foundation.

KGVO News spoke to UM Vice President for Research and Creative Scholarship Scott Whittenberg about the project.

New 'Regional Innovation Engine' Could Bring Millions to UM

“This is a new direction that the National Science Foundation is taking, and that's to have a more direct outcome from the research that we're doing on campus or our campuses, in this case, to be an economic driver in some area for a region of the country,” began Whittenberg. “In this particular project, the region that we chose was the equivalent of the northern region for the U.S. Forest Service, so it's areas of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and North and South Dakota.”

Whittenberg said a small start could lead to a massive investment of nearly $160 million in economic development to the area.

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The University of Montana is Taking the Lead on this Project

“The University of Montana is the lead on this, and actually I was the Principal Investigator on the proposal and on the project, but this is a development award, to help us prepare to write the big award, which is the next one,” he said. “This one is only a million dollars and it's for about a year and a half to help craft the proposal to request a type two set of funding. The type two set of funding is actually where the real impact is going to be because those awards are up to $160 million for up to 10 years, and so that's where we're really going to get some work done.”

Whittenberg said there will be some heavyweight partners for the University of Montana in this Regional Innovation Engine.

“To do this we had to bring together the right partners,” he said. “It's the Montana Wood Products Association to the Nature Conservancy to the forestry, fire, water people and researchers. It's the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Another important part of this is a venture capital company that will be a part of it. So some of the products and ideas that come out of it, we can license and then even use that to help drive economic development within the region.”

The Project Would use our Expertise in Fire, Water, and Forest Management

Whittenberg provided an example of the possibilities of such a project by looking back on his experience during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

“When I was in New Orleans, I was down there during Hurricane Katrina, and there was a company out of the Netherlands that came in and showed us how to manage water,” he said. “While we have that expertise here, I think ultimately we’d like to have some kind of a company or group that then would use our expertise and export that to other regions, both in the country and around the world using our expertise in fire, water, forest management, and so on. That could be an economic driver for the state of Montana.”

The area for the UM-led project is U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, which manages 25 million acres of public land across five states. The region’s 12 national forests are spread across northern Idaho, Montana, and a sliver of northeastern Washington. The four national grasslands are in North Dakota and South Dakota.

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