Leaders seek state funding for incubator space, support services for tech startups
PORTLAND — Looking to rev up the pace of startup companies coming out of research at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, area business and academic leaders are seeking support for the idea of a South Willamette Valley Technology Business Accelerator.
The notion, endorsed by the governor’s South Valley Regional Solutions Advisory Committee, was pitched to about 75 people over bacon and eggs Monday morning during a breakout session at the Oregon Leadership Summit, the annual economic development conference in Portland.
The committee is asking for $12 million in state funding and an equal amount to be raised by the two universities to bankroll the plan, which still is in the formative stages. Among other things, the proposal calls for a mix of incubator facilities and “virtual assets” such as management expertise, information resources and improved access to capital for fledgling tech companies.
Nick Fowler, the CEO of Corvallis-based Perpetua Power Source Technologies, told the audience that the committee wants to move beyond the old technology transfer model of licensing university research to what he called “true commercialization.” By providing a robust support structure for spinout ventures, OSU and UO could help more startups succeed and boost the region’s economy.
“Science and technology in particular attracts and rewards the high-paying jobs we’re looking for,” Fowler said.
Rick Spinrad, the vice president for research at OSU, talked about how universities could ramp up support services, from assistance with product feasibility studies to expanded entrepreneur-in-residence programs.
“This is one of the critical issues we face in the valley,” he said.
Patrick Jones, the associate vice president for research finance and business administration at UO, said his university was ready to provide similar help.
But he said Eugene lacks the kind of startup space available in Corvallis through OSU’s Microproducts Breakthrough Institute. Building a similar facility for UO — a business accelerator — would help it get more high-tech ventures off the ground.
Lee Beyer, a state senator from Springfield, facilitated the session and said he plans to introduce a bill to help attract more private investment for startups coming out of Oregon universities, a key component of the South Willamette Valley Technology Business Accelerator proposal.
Beyer wants to morph the state’s University Venture Development Fund, which provides small grants for product feasibility studies, into an innovation development fund that would provide a tax credit or similar benefit to Oregonians who are willing to invest.
The fund would be used to make more startup capital available to early-stage companies, a need frequently cited by entrepreneurs trying to launch businesses in the southern Willamette Valley.
Saying he was encouraged by the focused attention being paid to economic development efforts by OSU and UO, Beyer said the proposed accelerator could be an economic boon for the region and for the state.
But he also acknowledged the plan could be a hard sell in Salem, where Oregon lawmakers are focused on belt-tightening, and where tax credits are more likely to be eliminated than to be added.
“I would caution this is a tough legislative session we’re going into,” he said.
Speaking after the morning breakout, Fowler said that’s exactly why it was important to make the case for a south valley accelerator at Monday’s conference. Hundreds of business leaders and government officials from around the state had come for the annual update of the Oregon Business Plan, and those are the people who need to be convinced that an accelerator would be a wise investment.
“We need a lot of public and leadership support to prioritize these activities,” Fowler said, “because it’s a zero-sum game.”