By Jennifer Ortado, Marketing Manager
Will Silicon Valley business, investors and tech startups give Central Oregon a genuine nod?
Those of us who live in Central Oregon, and specifically Bend, understand its allure — the outdoor lifestyle, the close knit community and a palpable energy and enthusiasm for these elements among residents. For Economic Development of Central Oregon (EDCO) and several local investors, there is a concerted effort to promote these attributes and capitalize on technological advancements along with increased business mobility to lure tech startups to Bend.
The recruitment of a full spectrum of technology business is a targeted effort for EDCO, “Because these are the jobs of the future,” said Roger Lee, executive director of EDCO. “The majority of jobs in ten or twenty years have not even been invented today, so it is imperative that we prepare to capitalize on the next generation of employment rather than just what we’ve experienced thus far.”
Lee emphasized that the focus on the tech sector is not at the expense of manufacturing and professional service industries that are traded-sector (exported out of our region). “Our strategy is to attract both knowledge-based companies and industries while retaining our historical strength in actually making products.”
At a recent Technology Forum in Bend, hosted by Bend Research and EDCO, and moderated by Dino Vendetti, a Bend-based venture capitalist and founder of Seven Peaks Ventures, the topic of luring entrepreneurs and specifically how to cultivate a tech ecosystem in the region was debated.
Vendetti sees the city as an extraordinary location for a new generation of entrepreneurs in the tech sector. The recent forum aimed to verify the merits of Bend as a viable option for tech businesses, startups and serial entrepreneurs entering the next phase of their life looking for a place to plant roots.
Josh Bryant, Co-Founder and CEO at Bend-based Droplr came to the region from Silicon Valley. He acknowledged the mindset of young twenty-something engineers who first head to Silicon Valley to create a startup “just for startup sake,” explaining that he had friends that did just that, making large six figure salaries without a college degree. But that’s not what the startup business is about for Bryant. He distinguished his company as a startup that is dedicated to solving real problems and one that adds value to the world. He thinks Bend can lure these types of entrepreneurs that may be looking to scale back from the Silicon Valley mindset, yet still have the fire to build a good product.
Boosting the talent pool and a hunt for capital
Still, enticing entrepreneurs and existing tech businesses to expand to the region will require substantial investment. “While we are always amazed at the quality of technical and managerial talent in the region, it has been a mental hurdle in the past for companies to think about trying to recruit the majority of their engineering or scientific expertise from somewhere else in the country or world,” said Lee.
Expanding Oregon State University-Cascades aims to provide the boost in education to support the tech industry. Becky Johnson, Vice President of OSU-Cascades affirmed that the school is forging ahead to become a four year university in Bend and will soon have the ability to feed the market with appropriate talent holding degrees in computer science with an emphasis on web and mobile applications.
“As OSU-Cascades ramps up, a good share of those students (whether they came from the region or not) will want to stay here once they graduate if there are job opportunities. That’s an attractive asset for employers which could make their ongoing recruitment efforts much more fruitful,” said Lee
Nishad Pai, principal for global alliances and strategic partnerships at Google heralded the attributes of other tech based cities beyond Silicon Valley, like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle and noted that Bend may look to emulate them. He cited their significance in having investment capital and talent, in addition to robust university systems with access to science education, making them attractive to the tech sector.
But even with the proposed educational base, there still stands an issue of finding the capital for entrepreneurs to get their businesses off the ground.
Pai noted a shift in the way venture capital is deployed in Silicon Valley, where five and six figure investments are being made in numerous lean startups at a time, and he suggested that this may help Bend grow its entrepreneurial base if companies can tap into these resources. It was advised that entrepreneurs planning to bootstrap a business in Bend will need to have a strong network of potential investors in advance, because finding them in a small region isn’t easy.
However, there are incentives for entrepreneurs to bootstrap in Bend. Darren Powderly, president of Compass Commercial and board member at EDCO praised the benefits of mentorship, specialized training, seed and growth capital that EDCO fosters. “I’ve seen firsthand how resources like EDCO’s Venture Catalyst program, the FoundersPad Accelerator and Dino’s Seven Peaks Venture Fund can add enormous value to a start-up company. Bend is indeed a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity and is gaining national recognition as a business friendly place to start and grow a business.”
Finding the success story
Still, the panel agreed on the importance of enticing existing companies to Bend to build a base of capital to help pave the path for others. “Finding a success story to build the region’s credibility will be a key element to getting investors and companies like Google, or other successful tech businesses to take a serious look at Bend,” noted Vendetti.
To that end, EDCO’s efforts remain focused on developing relationships and confidence with tech company decision-makers so that they fully understand all the factors and elements of a move or expansion to the area.
“Relocation or expansion decisions are not made based on seeing an ad or a slick marketing campaign. Company CEOs, managers and owners make these major investment decisions after considerable research and due diligence,” said Lee. “Early in the process, , an attention grabber is the fact that on average a California-based company can save five to six figures in business costs per year by relocating here, even without any incentives. That’s pretty motivating to a small business owner,” Lee asserted. “The wheels really start turning when they learn that their children need not be in private school to get a high quality education, that their commute time will be cut to nearly zero and that housing costs are a fraction of what they have been paying.”
One might question if luring these tech businesses to Bend will squelch the community vibe? After all, people move to Bend to get away from big city lifestyles.
To quell this notion, Lee purports that the Bend ethos is alive and well, despite its torrid growth over the past two decades. “ Given Oregon’s land use laws, all the public land that is essentially off limits for development (74% of land in Deschutes County is federal land managed by the BLM or Forest Service) and other development constraints, this will not be another Boise, or LA or Phoenix with sprawling development.”
“Additionally, part of what makes Bend really unique among its peer communities is that while it has a resort town feel, real people live and work here.” Lee maintains that the community has a surprising number of niche industries that are competing on a global basis. Central Oregon is attracting not just retirees, but young families that have required the region’s school districts to build a new school every year, on average, for the past 15 running. “And that’s not happening in very many places in the country.”