Even the largest companies start out small, but a new state-sponsored initiative just getting off the ground aims to help tech startups from the Corvallis and Eugene areas play in the big leagues by leveraging the strengths of both communities in a regional approach to economic development.
The venture has a cumbersome name — the South Willamette Valley Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network — that compresses down to a catchy acronym: Oregon RAIN.
Earlier this year the Legislature agreed to provide $3.75 million in seed money, and both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon are providing financial and logistical support.
And now RAIN has a physical presence: the OSU Advantage Accelerator, which opened last month in leased space on the second floor of a small office building at 200 S.W. Fourth St. in downtown Corvallis.
It’s not a traditional business incubator. With only 2,000 square feet, it’s far too small to physically house its 12 client companies. Instead, it houses offices for co-directors Mark Lieberman and John Turner and program manager Betty Nickerson.
There’s also a shared office used on a rotating basis by three executives-in-residence for strategy meetings and mentoring sessions.
On Thursday, the conference room was packed with budding entrepreneurs for a visit by Robert Zagunis, an OSU grad who now heads Lake Oswego-based Jensen Investment Management.
And regular meetings have begun between the Corvallis accelerator’s leaders and their counterparts in Eugene, where the hunt is on for space to house a University of Oregon accelerator.
The idea is to provide the business expertise and support to help startups from both communities commercialize some of the research coming out of UO and OSU and to magnify the impact of those efforts by sharing resources from throughout the southern Willamette Valley.
“Corvallis is not big enough to do it on its own. Eugene is not big enough to do it on its own. But if we take a regional approach, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” said Lieberman, who served as executive director of the Business Technology Center of Los Angeles County before taking the OSU Advantage Accelerator job.
Joining forces also makes sense from the standpoint of attracting the attention of big venture capitalists from outside the area, said Turner, who teaches entrepreneurship in OSU’s College of Business.
“There would be more of a critical mass, more opportunities for investors to come and look at it,” he said.
Some of the OSU Advantage Accelerator’s clients already are finding success.
Multicopter Northwest, a drone-mounted video company launched by an OSU student, has temporarily pulled out of the accelerator after landing its first customer. And Valliscor, a faculty-run venture using technology licensed from OSU and private industry to manufacture chemical building blocks for pharmaceuticals and other applications, has made two hefty sales and is moving into professional space at the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute.
Meanwhile, other startups are lining up to take their place.
“We’ll probably have about 20 by January,” Turner said. “We’ll keep some of the old ones and probably have some new ones coming in.”
Eventually, Lieberman said, the accelerator would like to purchase a building with enough space to house some or all of its clients.
The idea for Oregon RAIN was hatched by the South Willamette Valley Regional Solutions Team, part of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s regional strategy for reviving the state’s ailing economic base.
Jamie Dimon, the south valley team’s coordinator, said the idea is to pool the research product and technical capabilities of Oregon State and the University of Oregon into a single entity, along the lines of North Carolina’s well-known Research Triangle.
The hope is that it will raise the area’s visibility with large corporations and major investors, helping homegrown companies spread their wings while keeping them here in Oregon.
“The RAIN project is a project that brings together Eugene and Corvallis as a region,” Dimon said. “It connects the two universities and the two communities in a way they haven’t been before — that’s the biggest difference.”
And while the regional rivalries between the two college towns aren’t going away, Lieberman said enthusiasm for the project is strong on both sides.
“There really, truly is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration now that might put an end to the Civil War,” he joked.
“Or at least a truce,” Turner added.
Bauer Labs: Medical IT company developing a combined hardware/software solution to improve emergency caesarean section deliveries and other procedures.
Beet: Working on a novel polycrystalline thin film technology to improve solar cell efficiency.
BuyBott: Online shopping site with a social media component.
FanTogether: Website and mobile apps aimed at connecting fans of sports teams across different regions.
Galaxy Single Molecule Diffraction: Developing a new electron diffraction method for creating atomic structures from isolated molecules.
InforeMed: Training and educational tools for medical students and professionals.
NRGindependence: Company formed to develop utility-scale storage batteries.
Onboard Dynamics: Bend-based company developing new technology for onboard refueling of natural gas vehicles.
Tally: Photo-sharing app that uses social voting to connect shoppers with friends and their favorite fashion brands.
Valliscor: Chemical manufacturing company that makes components for pharmaceutical, agricultural, polymer and electronics industries.
Waste2Energy: Commercializing microbial fuel cell technology to generate energy from wastewater treatment.
MicroCHX: Developer of microscale combustor and heat exchanger units.