Silicon Cities
Eco Tech Startups are Blazing a Greener Path in Portland’s ‘Silicon Forest’
Kim Lachance Shandrow | November 13, 2017

Green tech startups are not only growing innovative environmental solutions in Portland, Ore., they’re also driving the Pacific Northwestern city’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem forward.

Increasingly referred to as “Silicon Forest,” the Beaver State’s largest city is home to several vibrant startup niches, including education and health tech. But none has seen as much growth over the past decade as the clean tech sector, according to the 2017 Innovation That Matters report. The city ranked 10th on the freshly released extensive analysis, which examined the health of technology-driven startup ecosystems in 25 American cities. The report was conducted by 1776, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C__TEC) and FreeEnterprise.com.

Dozens of established and nascent environmental technology-focused enterprises have cropped up in and around the City of Roses in recent years. Stephen Green, an economist, entrepreneur and board member of the state’s Oregon Growth Board, says that’s due in part to how deep environmentalism runs in the cultural fabric of the region.

“Portland has long been a cradle point in the country around environmental and socially responsible business development,” he told Free Enterprise. “Our deeply ingrained ‘greenness’ — which I remember going back to when I was growing up here in the 70s and 80s — is part and parcel with the historically environmentally-friendly DNA of Portland. Caring about the earth is a big part of the local ethos.”

That said, it’s no surprise that the entrepreneurial climate in the area — also home to the most green-certified buildings in America — reflects this foundational environmental affinity. And, that unique affinity, is spreading positive rippling effects throughout the larger business community and the local economy, Green said.

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The Bottom Line
“I’m excited that local green tech startups are moving deeper into that triple bottom line now and making big gains,” he said. “So it’s not just about the environment, it’s about making money through revenue generation, and about the people driving change through fresh, new enterprise.”

Portland’s clean tech companies have contributed nearly 10,000 jobs in the region in recent years, according to the Portland Economic Development Strategy initiative. These jobs — many in the solar panel manufacturing and wind turbine component production arenas, and spanning positions involving software development, digital design, architecture and construction — increasingly lend Portland a competitive advantage on a national level.

Active and collaborative local eco-entrepreneurs, growing in experience in carving out sustainable business models, are driven to uphold and amplify Portland’s reputation as a legacy leader in the green technology industry.

“The growing startup scene in Portland — and in Oregon on the whole — plays a role in advancing environmental impact technology companies through the rise in number of experienced entrepreneurs that have the background and temperament needed to successfully launch a new venture,” Johanna Brickman, director of collaborative innovation at Oregon BEST told Free Enterprise.

Oregon BEST, supported by Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, funds and supports innovative clean tech startups in Portland and across Oregon. Acting as economic development catalysts, Brickmann and her colleagues connect startups with critical state and federal resources. They also help prepare early eco tech entrepreneurs for future and follow-on investment through development and training programs.

Creating the Future
While initiatives like Oregon Best, Business Oregon and many other entities like these do their part to equip area green tech startup founders with the resources needed to thrive in the clean technologies sector, Brickman says there is still considerably more work to be done. To start, for the city and state to continue to preserve natural resources and to remain competitive in global markets, access to venture capital must increase, she says, along with access to executive leadership.

“The local universities are doing their part to prepare future entrepreneurs here,” Brickman said, “but there’s nothing that can replace the school of hard knocks. What I mean is that Oregon has not had a lack of good ideas in the clean tech sector, but we have had to nurture the ability to scale those ideas successfully.”

One of the area startups she helped nurture, from Oregon BEST’s portfolio, is Indow Windows, a Portland-based maker of interior storm windows that reduce energy consumption in homes with single-pane windows. Launched in 2010 by entrepreneur Sam Pardue, the startup is now flush with approximately $5.4 million in venture funding.

“Sam has been very generous with the startup community by speaking at events regularly to share the lessons he’s learned,” said Brickman. “He’s also spearheading a project that encourages fellow local business owners to welcome refugees as their employees.”

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OpConnect, founded in 2001 in Portland, is another green technology upstart that Oregon BEST helped get off the ground. The company offers a cloud-based software platform that manages and monetizes 600-plus electric vehicle (EV) charging stations for 5,000-plus customers in eight U.S. states. The aim of the unique software is to provide the maximum benefit to the electric grid and lower cost to EV drivers.

Environmentally-friendly innovations, like the ones the above Portland startups are bringing to the fore, are a testament to the widely held belief that the city is a place for disruptive thought leaders who think — and build and create — outside of the box. The City of Roses is a hotbed of bleeding-edge environmental solutions brought forth by private and public sector influencers who embody the region’s love of collaborating within the community. Together, they’re growing the regional economy while creating a cleaner, greener future for all.

“Portland is driven by a culture of curiosity, collaboration and craft,” Rick Turoczy, general manager of PIE, the Portland Incubator Experiment, told Free Enterprise. “It’s a great place to try things and start things with the knowledge that the community supports and champions innovative pursuits, no matter how far-fetched they sometimes seem.”