The Willamette Innovators Network hosted a full slate of events centered around innovation and entrepreneurship Thursday at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Hill Alumni Center.
In its second year, Willamette Innovators Night is the largest annual gathering of entrepreneurs in the Willamette Valley. More than 50 Oregon companies and research and innovation groups were in attendance. Thursday’s keynote speeches and economic development town hall meeting drew a crowd of more than 150 people that included Mayor Charlie Tomlinson and Mayor-elect Julie Manning, Corvallis City Council members, business owners, innovators, researchers, economic development specialists and others.
The keynote speech, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation — Overcoming Challenges and the Value of Peer Mentoring,” was delivered by Ryan Buchanan and John Friess.
“You’re not really and truly an entrepreneur until you look over the crevasse and make the leap to leave a company and start your own,” Buchanan said. He is the president and CEO of eROI, an e-mail marketing company that he founded in 2002. Friess is the founder of Journey Gym (a portable gyms for travelers) and co-founder of Wired.MD.
Friess talked about the importance of bringing something to the market that fits the “disruptive model” — that is a solution that is cheaper and has fewer features than everything else on the market; or something that creates a brand-new market.
“That is truly what is at the core of innovation,” he said. “If you do either one of those two models, your likelihood of success is exponentially better.”
A support system is vital for guiding start-up CEOs and founders through rough patches and helping them make improvements to a business model, Buchanan said.
Friess and Buchanan have known each other for about 10 years through a peer-mentoring network called Starve Ups that has provided some of that support.
“It started with eight CEOs, and we were all starving at the time,” Buchanan said. “Hence our logo is a jar of peanut butter that you could live off for a month, if you need to ...
“Fast forward 10 years and, to date, we have an 85 percent success rate amongst our members; two-thirds (of them) are profitable,” Friess said. “But the point of that was to make a network of friends.”
Both men shared key ingredients for success, but returned again and again to the importance of perseverance and having a support network.
“We basically don’t quit. You can’t even let it cross your mind,” Friess said. “You can’t even have a plan B.”
Friess shared the story of starting Wired.MD with his brother. The company was the first to put wireless networks in Oregon hospitals and created a rich source of online health information. Still, it wasn’t an easy road and they had to lay off their entire team twice.
“We ended up with a thousand customers and a very profitable business, but we almost failed five times,” Friess said. “The reason that we didn’t is because I could call up guys and gals in town ... whether it was someone who would lend us $25,000 or would let us move into their offices.”
Good Clean Love, but hard work
For Wendy Strgar, founder of Good Clean Love, necessity was the mother of invention.
Her Eugene company manufactures natural and organic sexual health products. She recently won a $165,000 investment from the 2010 Willamette Angel Conference.
She started her company to help herself and save her marriage after finding herself dissatisfied and in physical pain in the bedroom after four children and 17 years of marriage. The diagnosis: female sexual disfunction.
“It’s not just a female syndrome; it’s a couples syndrome,” she said. “At that time I started this, I couldn’t have told you that 52 million people shared my problem.”
She started by making chemical-free products, but eventually her mission became encouraging sustainable, loving relationships.
Strgar also talked about a conscious decision she has made in her life and in her company to take the time to listen, avoid sarcasm and negative thoughts and be transparent with co-workers.
“How we think is who we are, and negative thinking is a block that degenerates many relationships. I just want to tell you right now that if you are having negative thoughts about your partner, whether it is you business partner or your intimate partner and you think you are concealing it, think again,” she said.
OSU research VP makes a commitment
Rick Spinrad, the vice president in charge of Oregon State University’s Office of Research, delivered a brief speech Thursday about the power of the private sector.
“If we think our growth potential is going to come from the federal research sector, we better think twice,” he said. “Where the growth potential is, is in the connectivity in economic development; in innovation; in new business development and in commercialization. We need to work on the economic development connectivity with research ... collaboration.”
Spinrad talked about starting a business 30 years ago with some fellow OSU oceanography graduates. They were full of questions about how to make their dream a reality but couldn’t find answers because there was no support system for start-ups then at OSU. That business eventually was acquired three times. It’s now a multi-million dollar enterprise and employs 60 people at WET Labs in Philomath. It’s part of a larger corporation based in Denver.
“It took 30 years to get there,” he said.
Spinrad oversees $275 million worth of research at OSU, where there are more than 1,000 research projects in progress.
“Imagine the potential for collaboration across the board. We are the research powerhouse, we want to work with the economic development community,”he said. “My commitment to you is that we are going to expand our capability for tech transfer, for licensing, for commercialization and for new business development.”
“What I ask of you is challenge us,” he said. “Take a look at who is working on a subject that might be interesting to you ... I want to be in a place, where people like I was with my business 30 years ago, can take even better advantage of the research enterprise that we have here at Oregon State.”
Thursday’s events included a town hall meeting on “Leadership in Economic Development: Where Does It Come from?” led by Prosperity That Fits, a local partnership with a focused plan for economic development; exhibitors from numerous Oregon companies and researchers; Spark!, a event that gives students a chance to share their business ideas; and Ignite! Corvallis, rapid-fire presentations about new ideas and potential fuel for the next new venture.