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New West Daily Roundup for Sept. 1, 2016

Today in New West news: Bozeman tech startup Centricient receives $6.5M, retrofitting Colstrip, and Sports Authority execs reportedly receive $1.5M in checks amid bankruptcy filing.

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, local tech startup Centricient has received $6.5 million in funding to develop its texting and instant messaging software. Centricient said two venture capital firms provided the funding, including Bozeman-based Next Frontier Capital. From the Chronicle:

Centricient’s customer service software uses text messages and Facebook messages in place of phone calls to coordinate customer service questions and complaints.

With its new software, Centricient joins several other companies, among them multinational tech giant Zendesk, in the world of customer relations management.

In addition to Centricient, Next Frontier, with $21.5 million in its inaugural fund, has invested in SiteOne Therapeutics, a Bozeman-based pain treatment company, Submittable, a cloud-based submissions platform in Missoula, and Clearas, a water treatment company in Missoula.

Centricient CEO Mike Myer and co-founder Bill O’Neill, both former senior employees at RightNow Technologies, started the company last October after reflecting on their personal experiences with customer service.

“I’m not a big fan of making phone calls and being on hold,” Myer said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s like going to a dentist: You have to do it, but you’re not looking forward to it.”

Tapping into the popularity of messaging made sense, he added.

“It was driven by my realization that in my personal life, I use text messaging. The idea for the company was just looking at how the world communicates personally.”

The software also caters to the current business trend of connecting with customers, Myer said.

“It’s all about being reachable,” he said. “Businesses want to be more engaged, and if they don’t engage with their customer base, they will go somewhere else where they can be engaged.”

Myer added that he “can’t imagine anything worse than having to relocate from Bozeman,” since he loves the state and believes the tech sector is hot and offers great recruitment potential.

Currently, Centricient is letting five to ten businesses test the software as a “controlled introduction.” The $6.5 million will go toward bettering the platform’s functionality and marketing.

Keeping with Montana, for the past few months, we’ve been following developments around the Colstrip coal plant. After years of debating over the issue, with pressure coming from utilities and legislatures outside the Treasure State, as well as area environmentalists, the plant is now slated to close two of its four units by 2022—a blow to coal fans and Colstrip residents who see the plant as their source of livelihood, direct or otherwise.

According to the Billings Gazette, at the behest of Montana Governor Steve Bullock, the U.S. Department of Energy has priced out what it would cost to “retrofit” the plant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: $1.2 to $1.4 billion. Federal officials say, however, that the cost could be partially offset if the plant could figure out how to sell off captured carbon dioxide. From the Gazette:

Bullock, a Democrat, is up for re-election in November. He’s faced a barrage of Republican criticism for not doing enough to protect the aging plant, as a shift toward natural gas and more stringent pollution regulations have battered the coal industry.

“We need to be saying, what can we do to find solutions?” Bullock said to utility and mining executives gathered at the governor’s office in Helena to hear the Energy Department findings. “Those discussions only become more urgent given recent developments at Colstrip.”

The plant in 2014 emitted about 16.5 million tons of carbon dioxide — two-thirds of the state’s reported total, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

[…]

Putting the captured carbon dioxide to use — by pumping the gas into underground crude oil reserves to boost production — would bring in revenues of $3 billion to $4.4 billion over 25 years, Kokkinos said.

The revenue figures are based on projected demands for carbon dioxide with oil selling for about $106 a barrel. That’s more than double the current price.

The figures also fail to account for increased operating expenses.

The merits of carbon capture technology are questionable, said Karl Cates, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“We see carbon-capture research mostly as a source of money for a number of taxpayer-funded research programs, including — maybe especially — at the University of Wyoming,” Cates said. “These programs have borne no practical advances even after decades of work. Notably, the coal industry itself has invested very little of its own money in these research projects.”

Now bankrupt, Peabody Energy contributed $2 million to the University of Wyoming’s clean energy lab, which is named after Peabody, but only after the state invested $76 million.

Carbon capture projects at other power plants have meant higher electric bills for, utility ratepayers, Cates said. Southern Co.’s ratepayer-subsidized Kemper experiment at a Mississippi power plant is two years behind schedule and $4 billion over budget according to a New York Times report.

AEP, an Ohio-based utility, canceled its carbon capture experiment in Huntington, W.Va., in 2012, after concluding that the technology was commercially unviable.

Finally, down in Colorado, we’ve been following Sports Authority since they declared bankruptcy in early March. Although the question of naming rights has commanded recent headlines, another pertinent issue has consumed the beleaguered sports equipment company. According to the Denver Business Journal, with the company’s bankruptcy, some 14,000 employees are now out of work, but not everyone is so bad off; the Journal reports that three unnamed executives will receive checks for up to $1.5 million as part of a plan signed by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Mary Walrath:

The Wilmington, Delaware-based judge’s approval came despite the objections of a federal bankruptcy-court watchdog official, who called the payouts “unseemly,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

The execs will get their bonuses while many creditors of the company — including merchandise vendors — are expected to get only a fraction of their costs back.

Andrew Vara, a U.S. Department of Justice trustee who keeps an eye on the Wilmington bankruptcy court where Sports Authority’s case is being handled, objected to the bonuses.

Vera said the payout plan would put “insider executives” ahead of unsecured creditors and “the thousands of employees who have already lost their jobs.”

It’s not unusual in a bankruptcy case for executives to be awarded bonuses as an incentive to stay on and help a failing business close out its affairs as opposed to leaving early for positions with successful companies.

According to the Journal, an earlier plan to award four execs approximately $2.85 million was rejected.

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