by Florence Williams
Livingston, Mont. - Dana Gleason, an avid
skier, thought he knew how to make a great backpack. In 1985 he
founded Dana Design in the back of his garage with eight sewing
machines. His product was a hit, and soon stores across the West
were clamoring for more. In the first year, sales totaled $40,000.
Just three years later, the company was selling $500,000 in
products and employing 21 people.
Gleason knew a lot about backpacks, he knew less about assembly
line production. The company had grown so fast that production was
hardly able to keep up. So in 1988 Gleason approached Montana State
University's new University Technical Assistance Program, which is
designed to provide free expertise to Montana companies while
giving students problem-solving experience. Housed in the "Montana
Manufacturing Extension Center," the program is a prime example of
the university's drive to esxpand the extension mission to every
corner of the university.
Enter Alan Deibert, a
30-year-old grad student in industrial engineering at Montana
State. Deibert not only helped unplug Dana Design's production
bottleneck; he also wrote himself into a job with the company after
graduation, fulfilling one of the university program's stated
goals: to keep smart kids in the state.
"What's the point of
educating top-quality students only to have them leave?" asks Bob
Swenson, the university's vice president for research. "We need to
help create successful companies here."
Deibert's unpaid internship with Dana Design ended, more students
have been brought in, some to solve engineering problems and others
to offer opinions on the latest prototype pack. "It's great to ask
geeks for advice," says Deibert, now Dana Design's production
manager. "A backpacker is the worst person to design a pack, where
an engineering student will ask the most challenging questions.
Students can be good for a company," adds Deibert, "because they're
not afraid to be really creative and far-out. Most of the time,
their ideas are dead wrong, but sometimes they're terrifically
Over the years, the assistance
program and its students have helped Dana Design with everything
from designing new mechanisms for testing aluminum strength in the
packs' internal frame to creating a system for stuffing
waist-bands. The company has also benefited from Montana State's
engineering facilities; an on-campus machine regularly tests the
tensile strength of Dana Design's fabrics and stitching. "Normally,
we wouldn't have access to a machine like that unless we were a $50
million company," says Deibert.
Bob Taylor, the
program's director, estimates it has contributed over 300 hours of
consulting to Dana Design. The tens of thousands of dollars of free
advice gives the company, and Montana, a competitive advantage.
Dana Design now employs 200 Montanans in three facilities across
the state, and its annual sales have topped $6 million. Its packs
have won design awards from numerous magazines and organizations,
including the nonprofit Alpine Institute of America. The company
also won a national "blue chip enterprise" award and recognition
from the Montana governor. Last year, Dana Design was bought by a
large outdoor products company based in California, but Deibert
says production will continue to be based in
For Montana State, the program
represents a very new direction from traditional agricultural
outreach. "We'd like to be a research arm for the industrial sector
as we are for agriculture," says vice president Swenson. To that
end, the program has assisted hundreds of small Montana
manufacturers, including a host of new laser and high-tech firms,
in the nine years it has been operating. Many of the companies hear
about the program through local extension agents.
Taylor estimates the program has cost about
$1.6 million so far. It has been funded in part by the university,
in part by the federal Economic Development Administration in the
U.S. Department of Commerce and by various in-kind contributions.
In a state that is cutting deeper and deeper
into higher education funding, the program's future remains
uncertain. This is the last year of its federal grant. "We'll have
to start relying more on state, private and university money," says
director Taylor. "We think we've proven ourselves useful, but
(continued funding) will depend on the mood of the legislature."