PORTLAND, ORE. — Seattle and San Francisco may get all the attention when it comes to West Coast startup hubs, but the entrepreneurial activity in Portland has ramped up quite a bit in the last several years.
For the past decade or so, there’s been an influx of Portland-based startups finding success, whether it be via large acquisitions or substantial funding rounds. Along with the flurry of new startups, there is also a recent pattern of big tech companies like eBay, Salesforce, Google, Airbnb, and more setting up satellite offices in the region.
We caught up with some of the region’s top CEOs and founders that were honored at last week’s Oregon Technology Awards event to learn more about the current state of the Portland startup scene.
Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans and COO Mariah Scott:
On Skyward: “We provide critical infrastructure to the emerging aero-robotics network. We’re not building the drones or services they provide; we build the airspace around them and the digital architecture for that airspace to be professionally managed.” — Jonathan Evans
On living in Portland: “Portland is the best city in the world. I’ve been to a bunch of cities. I was in the Army for nine years so I traveled a lot, visited all 50 states. The first time I came to Portland, I thought it was the coolest city I’d seen yet.
Portland is very progressive, innovative, and intelligent. It’s the same culture and lifestyle you’d expect in San Francisco or Seattle, yet we are a city of urban villages here. It’s a pedestrian-scaled city. You also run into people you know on the street, and there’s a lot of really interesting people here.
There’s also a reasonable standard of living and you can afford to buy a house here that’s pretty nice. You can take off for the weekend, too, and head to either the glaciated peaks of the Cascade Mountains or to the mighty, mighty Pacific Ocean. Both are less than a quarter’s day drive away to the most amazing recreation areas the West Coast has to offer.” — Evans
On building a company in Portland: “From a business perspective, you can do a lot here with less money as far as everything from cost of office space to cost of employees. After being in the Portland tech scene for 20 years, I found that it’s easy to get people to move here from the Bay Area and Seattle. They look at the lifestyle factors and say, ‘Oh, I can have a house, go to the mountains, send my kids to good schools, and I’m not going to be sitting in San Francisco freeways for two hours every day. Yeah, I’ll come up there.'” — Mariah Scott
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “Because Portland has not had as many successful exits as San Francisco or Seattle, it doesn’t really have that base of angel investors who have been through it and been through an exit.
You have Nike and Intel here, and people have money, but they didn’t come up through the startup entrepreneurial ranks. It’s a different feel for angel investors here. It would be helpful if there was more balance, more people that had successful exits and could bring back that experience.” — Scott
“What I’ve seen in San Francisco is a really great alumni network of successful startups that have gone through exits and caused a lot of employees to be angels. When you combine that wisdom with the resources to invest in the next thing, that is really what you need for a mature angel network.” — Evans
Brandlive CEO Fritz Brumder:
On Brandlive: “We are a platform for brands and retailers — mostly in the physical product space — to show and demonstrate their products on the web. We have a really simple interface that combines live video and real-time interaction with comments and questions. For example, you could be watching a product expert from GoPro and you can ask them questions directly. If you like the product they are talking about, you can buy it in the same interface.”
On why you like building a company in Portland: “Well, there’s a couple core things you need to start a company. You need good idea, and you can do that anywhere. But you need good people and some level of funding, and you need at least a little bit of an ecosystem to start a basic business.
Most places meet that criteria. But I think in Portland, it’s just up-leveled enough that it makes it a little easier. It’s simple here, but not difficult. In the Bay Area, on one hand it’s simple if you leverage all the right things. But since there’s enough noise, it’s difficult to find and leverage the right things. In Portland, your signposts of what you need, where you can get it and who you need to talk to to get it are a little more clear. When you are an early stage company and you have a business to figure out and your idea to execute on, having a pretty simple path to the critical stuff you need just makes it easier to navigate.”
On why you like Portland as a city: “My criteria for moving was some place where I could ski year-round, so Mt. Hood was a huge aspect. We also just don’t have much congestion — getting in and out of the city on weekends or after work is really simple.
There’s a lifestyle here that not only helps you survive for long enough to start a company, but also helps your company once it’s up and running. We have a really great creative space here — our office is in two converted train cars and it’s super cheap. If you had the same thing in San Francisco, it would probably be four times the price. That means you would have to generate so much more business and hire more employees.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “It’s at a stage where we need more venture capital money. Not having an established venture community here is definitely a problem. A big home run would of course also help. It would create a lot of wealth that would probably stay here. It would also create a bunch of talent that has gone through and had that experience. There’s definitely a gap here between companies with about $10 or $20 million in revenue and $100 million. My hunch is that Portland needs to fill more of that later-stage growth.”
Nvoicepay CEO Karla Friede:
On Nvoicepay: “We provide simple electronic payments for the enterprise. Electronic payments for business or enterprise is ten times the size of consumer payments, but unlike consumer payments, it hasn’t got all the investment and interest and technology in it. The field is wide open and it’s exciting to be a leader in that next generation.”
On what you like about building a company in Portland: “We want to build the next big Portland company. It’s such a livable city and it attracts a lot of talent. There’s a lot of developer talent here. It’s also an easy place to bring people to.
San Francisco has a deeper market, but the talent there jumps around and people aren’t really committed to something. Our team is excited to build something and make a difference. It’s not just about a job. It’s about being able to build something that’s on the latest technology and latest platform, and to live in a place you love.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “We could use more funding. There’s a lot of things percolating here, a lot of innovation going on. It would be great if there was more seed money for all the companies starting now. It’s a long way from San Francisco in terms of access to capital. But it’s easy to attract smart, hard-working people here.”
MotioSens CEO David Edwards:
On MotioSens: “We develop smart home technology to monitor the daily activities of seniors living independently.”
On Portland’s startup scene: “I tried to raise money here 20 years ago and there was no ecosystem whatsoever. Now there is wide variety of angel organizations and entrepreneurs have an opportunity to talk to local venture capitalists.
What’s really good about Portland is everybody helps each other a little bit. It’s small enough to do that and now is getting to a size where financing is becoming easier for a new startups.”
On Portland as a city: “It is a great place. I have a lot of visitors from Europe and they come again and again. There’s biking, beaches, and a great downtown.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “I think you have to ask the question: Does Portland really want to be like Silicon Valley? That’s a very important question. I suspect people don’t want that. The companies that employ between 50 and 500 employees are the sweet spot here. The infrastructure in Portland can’t really support a big startup ecosystem we talk about, but who knows? There could be a home run somewhere.”
Lumen Learning CEO Kim Thanos:
On Lumen Learning: “We replace college textbooks with digital courseware package that allows students to have free and open access while costing their college $5 for enrollment. We eliminate college textbook costs for students and allow everyone to have access to learning materials for free.”
On living and working in Portland: “It’s an awesome place to build a company. It’s the right size of city that has enough resources, but it’s not that same kind of competition for resources, attention, and focus you see in the Bay Area and Seattle.
Our customers love coming to Portland for meetings. Anytime they can come here, they love the quirky culture and diversity of things they can do while they are here. It’s really great.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “At the angel level, you see a lot of the same people participating in different angel groups. Expanding that population of angels would be good. It would also be nice to have more venture-level funders here, or have a local presence here.”
Bright.MD CEO Ray Costantini:
On Bright.MD: “We build software that helps automate the care delivery process and makes it cheaper, faster, and more delightful to get care from primary care providers.”
On building a company in Portland: “It’s a great place in general for IT companies. There’s a ton of development talent and an increasing amount of capital. You can be capital efficient, which makes a huge difference. For healthcare IT in particular, there’s a lot of exciting things happening here. Oregon is leading the country with some major changes happening around healthcare innovation.
On living in Portland: “The lifestyle aspect is huge. Personally, it’s why I came to Portland. It’s a big deal to be able to access all the things that make life really enjoyable when you aren’t working at your startup.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “I don’t think Portland should try to be a Silicon Valley or something like that. It’s a different kind of thing. Part of the charm and value of Portland is that Portland is happy being Portland. We don’t want to be San Francisco or Seattle or Boston — we want to be Portland.
But, I think Portland should focus on specific niches where it can be particularly potent. We should look at what we are uniquely good at and leveraging strengths that we have. That’s the way we can compete — by being Portland and not trying to be San Francisco.”
Healthsparq SVP of Product and Strategy Torben Nilsen:
On Healthsparq: “We provide cost and quality information to consumers around healthcare. For the first time ever, you’ll be able to look up the cost an quality for doctors and different treatments.”
On living and working in Portland: “There’s a lot of stuff happening in the startup environment. There’s a lot of collaboration with all the companies coming together. Portland isn’t too big to enable that, but it’s still big enough where it feels like there are opportunities.
There’s also a lot of interesting companies setting up offices here that really helps increase the talent pool, especially as costs rise in San Francisco and the Valley.
Portland offers so much from cultural and environmental perspective — you can go to the beach, you can go skiing. There’s a lot of opportunity for young people. We have microbreweries that started here, tons of great pubs and events to go to.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “The big companies setting up shop here will help infuse some talent and money. But maybe Portland doesn’t want to grow into something like a Silicon Valley. It’s always been a little bit of a little brother and weird — maybe people want to keep it that way.”
Clinicient VP of Strategic Technology Jeremy Cader:
On Clinicient: “We are a healthcare IT company specializing in revenue cycle management. Clinics don’t want to run their own billing or worry about getting paid from payers. They want to help treat patients. What we do is give them the software they need to run their clinic, and at the same time, take on all the billing efforts so they do not have to worry about claim processing. Clinicient has the automation and subject matter expertise necessary to streamline this process.”
On living and working in Portland: “It’s a great place to live. From a cultural perspective, Portland is a lot of fun from the food cart scene to the microbreweries and wineries. Portland has Mt. Hood with skiing on one side and the coast on the other. There is a lot of things to do.
On the tech side, the cool thing about Portland is the amount of technology happening here between the big companies and startups. You’ve got Nike, IBM, Intel, Tektronix and some other big companies that are recruiting a lot of talent here. At the same time, the Silicon Forest is a lot cheaper to live in than it is down in California. So you pay less for resources and the cost of living is less — that’s why people like to come here.”
On what does the Portland startup scene needs: “Portland needs to attract more talent. Finding the right talent for open positions is tough — you’ve got to move and act quickly.”