We are devastated by the sudden passing of Elemental Technologies founder, Sam Blackman. Sam was a serial OEN Award winner, and a true pillar of our entrepreneurial community. He gave back in countless ways, including donated shares that helped support OEN programs and services. Our hearts are with his family and friends.
Here’s more from Oregon Live:
Sam Blackman, founder of Elemental Technologies and one of the brightest figures in Portland’s resurgent tech scene, died suddenly over the weekend from apparent cardiac arrest. He was 41.
A Portland native who grew up lifeguarding at a city pool, Blackman led Elemental from a tiny startup into one of the city’s major employers. The company sold to Amazon in 2015 for $296 million, but Blackman remained chief executive following the deal and the business expanded rapidly.
Two people with direct knowledge of the events confirmed Blackman’s death, but Elemental declined to address it. The company issued a brief statement: “Right now we are focused on supporting Sam’s family.”
Just last week Elemental, now known as AWS Elemental, moved into a spacious new headquarters at the south end of Broadway, where it now employs more than 400. Blackman hoped Amazon’s Portland outpost would eventually grow into a major economic engine for the region.
And Blackman hoped Elemental could provide a broader civic boost, so he led the company’s community engagement to address housing, education, the environment and hunger.
“Sam’s the kind of guy you want your kids to grow up to be – not just a gifted engineer but (someone who) cares so passionately about the community as well,” said Allen Alley, who hired Blackman out of graduate school to work at onetime Tualatin tech company Pixelworks.
Word of Blackman’s death left Elemental employees heartbroken and numb. The news brought an outpouring of grief from Portland’s tech community on social media, with praise for his leadership and commitment to Portland.
“He was really humble but at the same time he was willing to say: This is something I care about, and because I care about it I am going to do it,” said Luke Kanies, founder of Portland’s other big young technology company, Puppet.
Blackman embodied Oregon tech’s evolution from a hardware-focused economy into one keeping pace with the broader industry’s shift to software, according Kanies. He said Blackman had the skills and insight to make a transition a lot of other tech companies didn’t manage.
“The thing that stood out to me was Sam cared deeply about everything,” Kanies said. “He cared about his company, his city and his family.”
Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement praising Blackman as a “beacon of Oregon’s tech community.”
“As CEO of Elemental and later with Amazon, he led the company to grow financially while engaging civically on issues like education, hunger, and the environment,” Brown said. “Sam’s approach made Oregonians stronger while helping build the economy that they rely on.”
As a startup, Elemental donated shares to a philanthropic organization called the Entrepreneurs Foundation of the Northwest. That stock was worth roughly $300,000 when Elemental sold to Amazon and the proceeds created the Elemental Community Investment Fund, part of the Oregon Community Foundation.
“We are fully aware that long-term investments made by the State of Oregon and City of Portland made Elemental possible. Now we want to make every effort possible to give back with innovative programs that, in turn, offer longer-term support for non-profits,” Blackman said last year.
Elemental also staged runs at industry events to raise money for charities, known as 4K4Charity – the name and unusual, 4-kilometer distance played on the 4K, ultra-high-definition video standard.
In 2015 Elemental began holding the runs annually in Portland, too. The local events benefitted Rosemary Anderson High School, for students who have been expelled from or dropped out of public high schools. The next Portland run in Oct. 12 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Portland school board member Amy Kohnstamm worked closely with Blackman on last year’s school construction bond campaign, and said he was passionate advocate for education and for creating opportunities for girls and young people of color.
“When he talked and when he was passionate about something people listened, and so he got a lot of support from the tech industry,” Kohnstamm said. “He also just really believed that a strong school system was key to a healthy city.”
After graduating from Brown University and earning a master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley, Blackman went to work as an engineer for Pixelworks, then a promising video technology startup.
Blackman left in 2006 with colleagues to start Elemental, which capitalized on surging demand for streaming video over the internet. Elemental’s software used standard computers to adapt video streams for transmission online.
Many of the world’s top broadcasters use Elemental technology, among them ABC, the BBC, ESPN, HBO and PBS.
At Elemental, Blackman recruited a passionate crew of technologists who shared his vision for the company and community.
Blackman’s father was Marc David Blackman, one of Portland’s most prominent defense attorneys. He died in January 2014.
An enthusiastic runner and ultimate disc player, Blackman typically biked to work at Elemental from his home in Northwest Portland.
Blackman’s survivors include his wife, Adriane, a Portland schoolteacher, and two sons in elementary school. Blackman was an active father even as the company grew, joining the boys at weekend swim lessons and coaching their basketball team.
At Elemental, Blackman sought to build a different type of tech business. The company didn’t have a game room, a foosball table or a kegerator. Blackman said they all distracted from the work.
“For me, the office is not what the business is about,” Blackman said last week. “Our culture has been around being here because you love the work, not because you love the workspace.”
After selling to Amazon last year, Blackman said he hoped the deal would be a beacon to tech companies and investors, bringing new opportunities to the city.
“This one, I hope, is something that draws a lot of eyes to what Portland engineers and Portland entrepreneurs can build,” Blackman said after the sale. “The teams here are building such great technologies. I really think this is just the beginning.”