On Wednesday, Nov. 14, the Sustainable Valley Technology Group held a gala dinner event, "Sustainable Accleration, to Infinity and Beyond," for 150 guests at Southern Oregon University. The organization (including this writer as a volunteer), succeeded in getting a speaker lineup of some weight, headlined by Price Waterhouse Cooper director Steve Bengston and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Maurice Gunderson. A panel discussion followed.
SVTG was founded in the last year as an incubator to nurture high-tech, and especially green tech, startups in the Rogue Valley. Sponsorship includes the state government, SOU, and private entities (thanks especially to Avista, Rogue Valley Microdevices and Greentech Media). With the Nov. 14 "coming out party", SVTG forms the third leg of a tripod including the existing SOREDI/Jefferson Grapevine, and the Southern Oregon Angels.
After the party, the real challenge now begins. All consituencies need to find solutions for the real obstacles to turning the Rogue Valley into Silicon Forest south.
Speaker after speaker made the point that local limits of isolation and finance may actually be the least of the problems. Steve Bengston declared, "Don't worry about whether the money will come. If you have good companies, the money will come to you. And the venture capitalists you really want to meet have their own planes."
Maurice Gunderson did a case study, Countour Energy Systems, showing how a modern startup ends up needing inputs ranging (in the case at hand) from Singapore to southern France — regardless of where it is headquartered. Visibly incensed at Southern California permitting delays, he lamented not having thought of locating in the Rogue Valley before it was too late.
So what are the real obstacles? Let's start with the above as Obstacle Zero: Fretting too much about smallness and distance from money.
Now for Obstacle One: fragmentation. Local green tech startups began with a single motivated individual. But every one of them did a different thing. Bo Thisted at UpWind Solutions, Craig Bramscher at Brammo, Dan Wells at Umpqua Energy, Drew Vigen at Alglo. So they don't create much of a critical mass or talent pool, such as happened with Light Emitting Diodes in Santa Barbara.
Obstacle Two: moveouts. The fragmented startups tended to be doing hardware, and to have special needs. Upwind headquarters has moved to San Diego. Umpqua Energy is in the process of relocating to Minnesota. A common theme: the difficulty of getting needed subspecialists and heavy infrastructure into the Rogue Valley (no matter how good the mountain biking). This leads to ...
Obstacle Three: 12 years of tough times in the various Silicon Valleys. At the peak of the Internet boom, this writer made his first visit to Ashland. Every third block had a San Jose moving van parked at the curb. These were bailouts who would live on their investments, systems engineers who always had surplus offers, or software engineers who could telecommute. Today, we are scarred and scared. Techies expect to need a new job every 20 months, are older with kids, and don't want to yank them from their school friends.
So what to do? In the short run, the best tactical stopgap may lie with the software engineers. Leverage the rural advantages of massless endeavours with massless products, with a profession that can get telecommute jobs in an emergency.
It was startling to see how much software talent was packed into the audience at the Sustainable Acceleration dinner. They are, however, going in many directions — retired off of old IPOs, telecommuting, doing random startups, writing accounting databases for Harry & David. A first priority for SVTG and its sister organizations should be to pull together and galvanize the software community for the sustainability goal.
The next priority, for the longer run (and accepting that many of the biggest green tech fields are hardware-based), should be to get two of something, two entities doing something, anything, so long as it is reasonably the same. Whether that means a spinoff, a competitor or a new academic lab, you will start to build critical mass.
It doesn't take much. The population of Shakespeare's London was almost exactly the same as Jackson County today. Sometimes you can think more clearly when it's not too big a churning maelstrom. Better times will come, and I believe Jackson County can participate.
Doug Widney is a San Francisco Bay Area green tech consultant. In addition to strategic advising and eletronic design for LEDs, vehicles, batteries and solar, he is a contributing writer for Greentech Media. He and his wife have a house in Ashland and a long-term commitment to Southern Oregon.