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Carl Niedner, founder and CEO of Code3Simulator, talks about his company's goals to a group of venture investors and startup companies during the 2016 Willamette Angel Conference in Eugene. 

Say so long to the Willamette Angel Conference.

The annual business competition, launched in 2009 by former Corvallis business guru John Sechrest, has invested close to $4 million in early-stage ventures since its inception, providing a much-needed stimulus to entrepreneurship in the southern Willamette Valley.

But last week, the Oregon Regional Accelerator Network and other organizations that sponsor the event announced that there would be no 2019 edition, calling a halt to the WAC after a 10-year run.

Oregon RAIN executive director Caroline Cummings broke the news in an email blast on Tuesday, saying the decision to pull the plug was made after surveying past conference attendees and consulting with fellow sponsors RAIN Eugene, the OSU Advantage Accelerator and the Corvallis and Eugene chambers of commerce.

In an interview, Cummings said the WAC had acted as a catalyst for bringing together the four elements necessary to support a thriving startup culture in this part of the state: people, programs, physical assets and capital.

But having reached that point, she added, it was time to move on.

“We realized it was time to evolve into something different,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was the right one.”

Cummings helped Sechrest, then the economic development coordinator for the Corvallis chamber, flesh out plans for the Willamette Angel Conference, which formed a limited liability company made up of (mostly) local investors to vet participating startups for potential funding.

A Corvallis venture called CenterSpace Software won the first competition, held on the Oregon State University campus, taking home a check for $125,000 after making the day’s most compelling sales pitch. Several other participating companies also walked away with investment funding after cutting individual deals on the sidelines.

The competition shifted to Eugene in 2010 and alternated back and forth between the two towns in subsequent years, with later winners including ventures such as Dune Sciences and Moonshadow Mobile of Eugene and Code3Simulator and Agility Robotics of Corvallis.

And the checks and sidecar deals got steadily bigger as the south valley’s cadre of angel investors grew larger and more confident.

Meanwhile, Cummings pointed out, new programs such as Oregon RAIN were emerging to help commercial innovative technologies coming out of the region’s two universities and nurture homegrown startups.

At the same time, more physical assets — including shared workspaces such as the Corvallis Foundry — were also coming on line.

More local capital is now available as well.

Last year, the federal Economic Development Administration awarded a $300,000 grant to help launch a regional seed fund for the southern Willamette Valley.

The fledgling Cascade Seed Fund, managed by 44North Ventures out of Bend, is expected to have somewhere between $3 million and $10 million in investment capital by the end of next year. Investing priority will go to spinoffs from OSU, UO and the regional accelerators as well as “overlooked groups” including rural, minority, disabled and military veteran entrepreneurs.

Fund managers Julie Harrelson and Robert Pease are hosting educational meetings with accredited investors this week in Portland, Eugene and Corvallis.

And last Thursday, Oregon RAIN "venture catalyst" Corey Wright led a first-of-its-kind startup pitchfest in Philomath that drew more than 100 participants.

As Cummings sees it, the climate for starting a new business in the southern Willamette Valley these days is pretty healthy — and a fair share of the thanks for that can go to the WAC.

“This is a natural evolution of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she said.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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