The state-backed nonprofit that supports clean-tech development is changing its name and embarking on a new funding strategy, aiming to overcome waning support from Salem and find the money it needs to boost early-stage startups.
Oregon BEST said Thursday it will go by the name VertueLab, and create two new investment vehicles.
The first would be a regional impact-investor-focused venture fund managed by a for-profit partner. The second would be its own nonprofit fund, backed by donations from foundations, governments and individuals, that would try to take promising research over the funding gap to private investment.
This is a path the 10-year-old organization had contemplated for some time, believing it could increase its impact by tapping into a rising generation of investors interested in using their wealth to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges.
But a recent cut in state backing — from around $6 million in the past biennium to $2.5 million in the current two-year period — prompted an accelerated move, President and Executive Director David Kenney said.
“We were at the point where we were having companies coming to us for capital because they thought we had money, and we had to say, well, actually, we don’t have any right now,” Kenney said.
Kenney believes the organization is uniquely positioned to lure in a portion of the “trillions of dollars that that will be changing hands over the next decade, from the old guard to more millennials and women involved in financial-decision making.”
Oregon BEST launched in 2007, one of three “Signature Research Centers” (along with ONAMI and OTRADI) that grew out of 2005 legislation that created the Oregon Innovation Council.
The organization provides a range of services to startups and startup wannabes, but its highest profile role has been to fund early-stage ventures, which it did with grants before turning to convertible-note investments. It counts several successes, among them flow-battery maker ESS; Arcimoto, the three-wheeled EV manufacturer; and Iotas, a smart-home tech company.
“We are probably the most experienced pre-private capital cleantech investor in the country,” Kenney said, “so we see an opportunity for an organization with experience like we have.”
Because much of the capital it will seek would come from outside Oregon, VertueLabs’ focus will expand beyond the state’s borders, Kenney said, although Oregon will remain a strong focus.
“It’s important for us to position ourselves to that audience as not being just an Oregon economic development initiative but rather a national, prominent player in connecting investors with startups,” he said.
Kenney said VertueLabs was in discussions with two organizations that could manage the venture fund, and was looking to launch its own gap fund in the next six months.
“Hopefully we’ll start to put money in those funds as we look into 2019 so that we can begin actually deploying some funds,” he said.
As for the name, it "comes from a combination of vert, which means green, virtue, which is about good, and lab, which is a reference to where technology is developed," the organization said in a press release.
"That all adds up to ‘Green Technologies for Good,’ our new tagline," Kenney said.