To passersby, the Innovation Factory might look like the neglected home of a program forgotten by UM.
The sleek office space, occupying the northeast corner on the second floor of the University Center, is filled with technology for all manner of machining and prototyping projects, but regularly devoid of students. On any given day, the doors to the UC mezzanine are locked.
Despite being quiet, a broad range of University and community members are hoping to supply and support an array of entrepreneurial endeavors with a goal of technological innovation in Missoula.
Brad Allen, co-director of the Innovation Factory, said the space was designed in 2019 as a hub for anyone in Missoula with start-up business ideas to network and get projects off the ground. The space was paid for by UM and acts as a nexus for existing programs on campus to offer their services.
The Innovation Factory launched in November 2019, first hosting different guest workshops for 30 days.
“We had everything you can imagine,” Allen said. “We had chefs come in and show people how to make cheese. We had innovations in sustainability. We had Fish, Wildlife and Parks come in and talk about public lands.”
Then, in the months following its launch, the IF closed its doors as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Since the shutdown, regular hours were cut.
“We’re in one of the most public-facing spots on campus too, so it’s difficult,” Allen said.
Allen said the IF previously employed students. Known as “navigators,” their jobs entailed briefing visitors on the technologies IF has in-house, from 3D printers to laser cutters and other prototyping systems.
The IF still maintains some connections within the Missoula network it built before COVID-19. One of the partnerships is with Habitat for Humanity of Missoula, a nonprofit which works to build affordable housing in Missoula County.
From this partnership, the nonprofit hopes to advance 3D-printing technology that uses hemp-based concrete for construction, according to executive director Heather Harp.
Harp said this type of concrete is much more ecologically friendly than conventional building materials.
While attending a trade show, she was impressed by the possibilities 3D printing could present for quick, affordable and environmentally sustainable construction.
“It was really cool to capture people’s imaginations and move away from just [concrete] sidewalks,” Harp said. “Like, ‘Oh, we can go up instead of just flat work.’ And that’s what we need, is that kind of imagination that can stretch us toward solving our housing crisis.”
Eventually, Harp wants to use such technology to 3D-print more construction material used to create low-cost, high-density housing in Missoula. The project is still in its planning stages. Harp said she is prepared to pursue it for decades if need be.
According to Harp, Habitat for Humanity’s international organization is pressing local affiliates to double their production by any means possible. Before the first house can be printed, Harp said, the “five L’s” of construction need to be addressed: labor, lumber, lending, land and laws.
Of these, she said navigating the issues of land acquisition and local zoning laws will be the most intensive part of the process. Harp has been working with other organizers to petition the Missoula City Council to accommodate for the construction of high-density housing over land zoned for single-family residential dwellings.
“Being able to build differently with different housing forms really helps us to help the single person achieve homeownership,” Harp said. “Right now, it’s difficult even with two incomes. Imagine trying to buy a home with just one.”
Harp said another piece of the puzzle is whether to first secure a large-scale 3D printer or acquire the land needed to build, a “classic chicken or the egg problem,” she said. “My hope is that we can figure out how to do both simultaneously.”
The cost of one printer that could construct a three-story structure, Harp said, is around one million dollars, making it economically infeasible to purchase one only to print a few homes a year.
Harp said the funds used to buy a 3D printer will be supplied through a series of grants. Blackstone LaunchPad, a campus organization headquartered in the Innovation Factory that provides entrepreneurial support to local start-ups, is assisting in applications.
The partnership sprang from a chance encounter at a restaurant with Paul Gladen, director of Blackstone LaunchPad.
“As it often works in small towns, you have a drink and you get to know somebody,” Harp said. “You get to figure out what they like to do, what their strengths are.”
Gladen said he sees innovation as the intersection of research, novel ideas and entrepreneurship. Blackstone LaunchPad’s work within the Innovation Factory is thus a way to provide both business support to a project and the technology with which to advance it.
“Brad [Allen] is working from sort of an innovation perspective, and we can then help from a logistical perspective,” Gladen said.
While the Innovation Factory continues to work within the Missoula community, Allen hopes that as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, more students will begin to come back into the offices to seek support for expanding their project ideas and to get hands-on work with the technologies.
“Most of the work that we’re doing out of here is due to come back to campus, to students,” Allen said. “It may be true that you can’t walk in any day you want and learn something right now, but it’s also inaccurate to say that we’re not campus partners.”