Matt Volz, AP
HELENA, Mont. — A foundation run by a New York private equity firm pledged $2 million Friday to help pair young entrepreneurs at the University of Montana and Montana State University with businesses that can help get their ideas off the ground.
Blackstone Group president Tony James announced Montana as the fifth state with a Blackstone LaunchPad program, a $50 million initiative that aims to encourage entrepreneurship across the nation.
"I think entrepreneurship is absolutely the core of the American character," James told a packed Capitol rotunda of students, university officials, business leaders and politicians. "If we ever lose that in our country, we're lost as a country."
The $2 million Blackstone Charitable Foundation grant will be bolstered by $600,000 from private businesses to run the three-year program. After that, the hope is the program will be self-sustaining as entrepreneurs who successfully go through put money back in, said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, whom James said was instrumental in bringing the initiative to Montana.
The LaunchPad program will be housed in the student union buildings on the Missoula and Bozeman campuses, and will be open to all 30,000 students at the universities. A student with an idea will go to the office to be paired with a business through the program's network that will coach the student and provide support to turn the idea into a sustainable venture.
Tester said he has been working to bring the program to Montana since last year, when James spoke about it during a small business workshop in Bozeman. It didn't hurt that James has a ranch in Twin Bridges and is an advisory board member of the Montana Land Alliance.
"It's about how you build an economy, how you better a state like Montana, how you keep this country on the cutting edge," Tester said.
The Blackstone LaunchPad program was started in 2008 at the University of Miami, where it has generated more than 1,400 business proposals and 210 new jobs to date, organizers said.
Since its start in Miami, the program has expanded to Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
James and Tester were joined by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, Gov. Steve Bullock, Montana State University president Waded Cruzado, University of Montana president Royce Engstrom and Bill Green of the University of Miami.
The university officials said the program will bolster existing initiatives promoting entrepreneurship, while Baucus said it should provide a spark to create new jobs.