Portland, Oregon has become one of America’s hottest destinations for entrepreneurs–thanks in part to its vibrant startup scene. Here’s a guide for navigating who to know and what to see in the highly caffeinated Pacific Northwest city.
Co-founded by Nike veteran Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, the University of Oregon’s 18-month sports product management master’s program on designing, producing, and marketing sports products connects aspiring entrepreneurs with angel investors at Oregon Sports Angels, founded by fellow ex-Nike employee Kate Delhagen.
Portland Community College’s intensive, 14-week “Getting Your Recipe to Market” course ends with students pitching products to local grocery chain New Seasons. Pitches that ended up on New Seasons’ shelves include TanTan Foods’ vegan Vietnamese sauces, Salsas Locas Mexican Foods, and Brazi Bites, gluten-free cheese bread.
Who to Know
Angela Jackson is the executive director of Portland State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and its business accelerator, and co-founder and managing director of the Portland Seed Fund, which invests in early-stage Pacific Northwest-based companies. PSF’s portfolio consists of 78 companies, including Indow Windows (which makes energy-saving window inserts), software firm Cloudability, and apparel maker Wildfang. Successful local exits include Better Bean, GlobeSherpa, and eyewear startup Sightbox.
“Because our initial investments are small, we are able to take risks that others feel they cannot,” says Jackson. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
Amid bone-broth bars and co-working spaces, Central Eastside, the old manufacturing district, houses makerspace ADX Portland and the game-changing local food incubator the Redd.
Anchored by the 1915 Ford Building, the informally named Ford District is chock-a-block with some of the city’s best bars and restaurants, along with cannabis bioscience company Phylos, soon to move into the LEED-Platinum SolTerra building.
Stretching from Oregon Health & Science University across the Tilikum Crossing light-rail bridge to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Innovation Quadrant has plans to open a health care startup incubator.
$107 million: Puppet (data center software)
$38.8 million: Ruby Receptionist (remote assistant company)
$32 million: Cloudability (financial management software)
$700 million Organic-food maker Pacific Foods to Campbell (2017)
$210 million Bend, Oregon-based water bottle company Hydro Flask to Helen of Troy Limited (2016)
$296 million Video tech firm Elemental Technologies to Amazon (2015)
Who to Know
“All roads lead to Jon Maroney” is a common refrain among Portlanders. The co-founder of FreeRange–a mobile app platform that sold in 2009–now manages “entrepreneur partnership success” at the Oregon Angel Fund, which invests more money in local companies at a later stage than the Portland Seed Fund. At OAF–one of the firms that backed Elemental Technologies, which sold to Amazon–Maroney helps startups think through their strategy, storytelling, and goals.
Portlanders are fiercely loyal to local businesses, sometimes going so far as boycotting them when they sell out to bigger, out-of-town companies. Even before coffee roaster Stumptown sold to Peet’s in 2015, many locals opted to get their single-origin brew elsewhere after learning that private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners snapped up a majority stake in 2011.
While there are lots of angel investors and seed investing outfits in Portland, there’s very little VC money. “It’s forced companies to be very capital efficient,” says Portland Seed Fund’s Angela Jackson. “People have to learn how to get on a plane and be competitive.”
Brands to Watch
Women’s tomboy clothing brand Wildfang, the most-talked-about apparel company to debut from Nike ex-pats in years, found a loyal following among Hollywood feminists like Ellen Page–along with a big-name backer, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
After a failed tech startup, Ben Jacobsen rebounded with Jacobsen Salt, an upscale brand of fleur de sel harvested on the Oregon coast, and a cult favorite of chefs and gourmands.
Newbie gin and whiskey maker Freeland Spirits, co-founded by Jill Kuehler, Molly Troupe, and Cory Carman, is among the fewer than 1 percent of U.S. distilleries that are owned by women.
Who to Know
For nearly a decade, the one-man media machine known as Rick Turoczy has been the city’s behind-the-scenes connector, via the Portland Incubator Experiment, which he founded in 2009 with famous local ad shop Wieden + Kennedy. On Turoczy’s Slack channel, PDXStartups, and blog, Silicon Florist, he chronicles local startup life and news, and recently expanded PIE’s focus to consumer products, partnering with the nonprofit Built Oregon to debut the inaugural Built Up Festival last fall.
Where to Talk Shop
Portland is known for its coffee, but Caffè Umbria feels more like a detour to Perugia. Owned by a third-generation Italian roaster, this busy Pearl District café functions like a branch office for entrepreneurs and VCs who meet over macchiatos and panini.
Ninety-nine barrels of beer on the wall–aged, farmhouse, sour, and plain old IPA–are the draw at Loyal Legion, a dimly lit beer hall in the Central Eastside. Be sure to try one of its Breakside Brewery brews, made by local Ben Edmunds.
Entrepreneurs chat over flat whites and free-range eggs on sourdough toast at Proud Mary, the first U.S. outpost of this cosmopolitan Melbourne-based coffee chain.