The Portland Incubator Experiment has always leaned heavily on the experiment part of its name. The organization, one of the city’s preeminent startup nurturers, never set out to be one thing forever.
Yet it’s been three years since PIE put its primary work as a startup accelerator on hiatus, and General Manager Rick Turoczy has spent that time determining where to take the experiment next.
The answer to that question came this week: PIE, Turoczy announced, is ending its hibernation with a new program manager, new office space and an updated accelerator program designed to be more flexible with the types of business models it can serve.
PIE will host a new cohort of 10 companies — the fifth since it was founded in 2009 — that include a 3D printing firm, a consumer review app and a new travel brand. The companies will work from PIE’s new Central Eastside headquarters inside The Dairy Building on Southeast 8th Avenue.
The accelerator will be led by Chevonne James, PIE’s newly appointed program manager.
In its earlier iterations, PIE — like other accelerators across the country — worked with startups in a three-month sprint that culminated in a Demo Day event before an audience of investors. PIE spent those three months honing the startups’ business plans and investor pitches in the hope that they would end the program with new growth capital. While that works for some hyper-growth companies, it wasn’t right for others.
To address that, PIE is removing its focus on venture capital. The group will have a rolling cohort instead of a hard start and stop with each class, and companies within the cohort will be allowed to work in the space as long as necessary to launch their business.
“Part of this was our desire to intentionally explore different business models — models that still have the potential for substantial growth — and different ways of funding those businesses,” Turoczy said.
Another part of the “experiment” this time around is exploring whether direct investment by PIE is beneficial. In the past, PIE would invest capital in some startups, only to watch some fail, while others in which it only offered support would succeed. This time around, PIE isn’t going to invest in any of the startups.
“Our hypothesis is that the small amount of capital we have traditionally invested wasn’t a factor in startup success, but we need to test that,” Turoczy said.
The new accelerator model is PIE’s answer to better serving the current needs of Portland’s startup community. And it works in concert with the recently announced PIE Shop, a program run with software maker Autodesk and design and engineering firm Uncorked Studios, that will work with upstart manufacturing companies to support the city’s burgeoning maker entrepreneurs.
Its change in location is also aimed at better serving the startup community. The move to the Central Eastside Industrial District marks a shift from PIE’s previous locations, particularly the Pearl District, where it was a catalyst for startup activity in the neighborhood.
“The Central Eastside is entirely different. That energy is already there and we want to be a part of it,” Turoczy said. “But we’re also motivated to try a new section of town in an effort to correct a mistake we made. In the Pearl, as the surrounding startup community grew in size and success, PIE failed to be intentional about protecting affordable office space for those early stage startups who were just beyond PIE or coworking size.”
From this new location, part of the city’s newly created “Innovation Quadrant,” PIE will work to ensure startups aren’t priced out.
PIE debuted in 2009 as a coworking space. After two years, it had evolved into a business incubator backed by advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy that connected promising startups with seasoned executives. The program, which focused heavily on business-to-business software and mobile startups, has been wildly successful, providing a launching pad to more than 50 startups in its various phases, including Portland success stories Urban Airship, Cloudability and Simple.
The current PIE program is funded in part by Prosper Portland, the city’s economic and urban development organization, and its Inclusive Business Resource Network. PIE was selected to continue what had been Prosper Portland’s Startup PDX Challenge, a city-backed incubator that focused on minority entrepreneurs. Last year, PIE was one of five organizations that Prosper Portland selected to grab a piece of a $550,000 pot of funding.
“PIE has long been an essential partner in our work promoting inclusive entrepreneurship in Portland, and we are excited to support Chevonne, Rick and the PIE team as they mentor a new group of startups,” Kimberly Branam, Prosper Portland’s executive director, said in a written statement. “These businesses represent the full array of diverse founders, interests, and industries that reflect Portland’s vibrant startup scene.”