Guest Viewpoint: Building on Eugene's foundation for startups

Building on Eugene’s foundation for startups

After reading the July 28 article on the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or RAIN, I would like to add some context and commentary to highlight what a significant achievement this state-funded efforts represents.

First, the context. After finishing my MBA at the University of Oregon I started my first company, Floragenex, here in 2006. My co-founder, Eric Johnson (now director of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the UO) and I were committed to building a company in Eugene, even if it would be harder than if we’d chosen to move to Portland or elsewhere.

As with any good adventure, you find your way, align (or not) with people you meet, and gather all the resources and experiences that you can. We did that, hiring all of our team members from the UO and building a successful company with help from customers, advisers, investors and mentors. It was the hardest thing I will ever do, and one of the most rewarding.

Today, I’ve put Floragenex in the hands of a great team and am running the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship at the UO. In this role, I help connect the UO to the greater Oregon startup community, recruit and teach MBA students, and work with students on their business ideas. It’s a great job that allows me to see many facets of the Oregon business community and build connections among groups while engaging with talented students.

Now, the commentary. Over the last six years, I’ve watched the Eugene-Springfield area’s startup community emerge and organize as a real asset for our local economy. What once felt like an abstract idea — that Eugene would feel like a great place to start a company — is beginning to be the reality.

In his book “Startup Communities — Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in your City,” Brad Feld, a leading advocate for the startup economy who lives in Boulder, Colo., describes many attributes of Boulder that exist or are developing here in Eugene. Like Boulder, we’re a progressive-minded, technology savvy university town. The economies of both are big and diverse enough to stand apart from the institution that often defines them, but will always remain linked.

Eugene has an opportunity to emerge as a vibrant community for building companies. We must not just try to be the next (insert name of hip, happening city here), but be our own brand of commerce and culture — something that the local populace is clearly adept at.

The evidence of our community’s vibrancy is all around. SmartUps, an entrepreneurial support group I co-founded in 2008, has been hosting networking and educational programs for more than five years now. That group and its spinoffs provide places for people to meet and talk about their ideas and challenges — a community.

The Willamette Angel Conference, which alternates between Corvallis and Eugene, has invested in local companies and pulled together a group of angel investors who will take risks on entrepreneurs’ ideas.

The cities of Eugene and Springfield are making decisions and investments that encourage growth in the city centers, helping create places where a community can thrive.

Most importantly, we have a strong group of engaged leaders for our startup community from all the facets of our economy. Local software and gaming industry veterans, product and science leaders from the biotech industry, natural food and product entrepreneurs, and many others who are willing to mentor others provide the fabric for our canvas of diverse industries.

State investment in RAIN is another piece of the puzzle. Its very existence is validation that we have a growing startup community here. This commitment of funds and programs means that the next generation of university-generated companies in the southern Willamette Valley should have the support structure that hasn’t existed here before, and therefore a higher likelihood of success.

It also gives Oregon State University and the UO each a well-deserved place to highlight the ideas and ambitions of their entrepreneurial students, faculty and staff.

RAIN can be a place where potential investors can meet with passionate scientists, engineers and designers; where mentors and service providers can link into what’s happening in the community, and where we can celebrate success and learn from failure. As a model for success we can look to the Portland State Business Accelerator, which operates as one of the foundational structures of the Portland startup community.

We should applaud all of the efforts of Kimberly Espy and Rick Spinrad, research vice-presidents at the UO and OSU respectively, and the many others who have worked for many years to help build the foundation of a startup community in the southern Willamette Valley. We are building a community, and now UO and OSU will have a place to showcase their role in that effort. There are exciting times ahead.

— Nathan Lillegard is program manager of the University of Oregon’s Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship.