How Portland’s Startup Ecosystem Strives for Inclusion

September 12, 2017

1:30 pm

Diversity and inclusion is a priority for the Portland, Oregon startup community. Rick Turoczy, Cofounder at Portland Incubator Experiment, is a leading force in this movement and helps drive a culture of curiosity, craft and collaboration.

In this interview with #StartupsEverywhere, Rick talks about Portland’s effort to be the most inclusive ecosystem, their R&D shop, how the city is a magnet for talent and the latest startups.

How did you get involved in the Portland area startup ecosystem and what is your role?

My involvement in the Portland startup community was more or less an accident.

I’ve been here for more than 20 years and have worked in startups the whole time. After spending a dozen years on the corporate side of the desk, I began to write about the projects I was seeing on a blog—the companies, the people, the events, the community. This allowed me to start connecting people. Now, I’ve been blogging about the Portland startup community on Silicon Florist for a decade and I’ve been working on the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), a curated co-working space, for over eight years.

Currently, I spend the majority of my time connecting dots and helping entrepreneurs short circuit the network to make connections more quickly.

Can you tell us more about PIE?

At the most basic level, PIE is an ongoing experiment intended to help corporations, governments, and other well-established entities to effectively collaborate with startups for mutual benefit.

From a corporate engagement perspective, PIE began as a partnership and collaboration between award-winning, global creative firm Wieden+Kennedy (the creators of “Just do it,” among others) and the Portland startup community. Throughout our history, we have been lucky enough to collaborate with a number of partners, including Coca-Cola, Daimler, Google, Intel, Nike, and Target, as well as government entities like the Oregon Governor’s Board of Film & Television, the State of Oregon, and Prosper Portland (formerly known as the Portland Development Commission).

From a startup perspective, PIE builds better founders. While the risk of starting a company means that most of our companies are only companies for a brief time, all of our participants learn what it’s like to be a founder and how they can improve the next startup they create.

Throughout our history, we’ve experimented with coworking, incubating, mentoring, investing, and accelerating. We’ve tried to capture and open source all of those learnings in the PIE Cookbook so that anyone, anywhere has a framework for experimenting with their own startup community and ecosystem.

Ultimately, when it comes right down to it, PIE strives to be the hub and the connective tissue that helps make it easier to be a founder in Portland, to help people gain access to the resources they need, and to ensure that we are building a collaborative and inclusive community of amazing entrepreneurs.

What’s the most exciting thing that has happened for Portland in the past year?

To me, the most exciting thing to happen to Portland in the past year has been an increased interest in the inclusiveness and the diversity of our community. We’re also seeing new funds being established specifically to capitalize on existing momentum, like the XXcelerate Fund, which focuses on investing in women founders and the Elevate Inclusive Fund, which focuses on investing in historically underrepresented founders.

The PIE space in Portland, Oregon

The PIE space in Portland, Oregon

What makes Portland an ideal place to start a company?

Portland is driven by a culture of curiosity, craft, and collaboration. People here are intrigued by problems and seek solutions regardless of whether there is a viable business model or a promise of funding. Members of the community are also always willing to help one another. Portland is very much a “rising water floats all boats” rather than a “winner takes all” sort of community.

I tend to refer to Portland as a giant R&D shop. Founders here are somewhere between hobbyist and academic. For them, exploring the problem provides as much value and insight as solving the problem. That passion means that many companies start as grassroots efforts and accidental enterprises.

Finally, at a time where a lack of accessible talent is negatively impacting many startup ecosystems, Portland has become a magnet for talent. But despite its recent growth, Portland remains an extremely livable city. That continues to make it attractive to very talented and creative folks who decide to relocate to Portland.

Photo by Aaron Hockley

Photo by Aaron Hockley

What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?

We’ve been lucky to import three significant contributors to our ecosystem: talent, mentorship, and capital.

As I mentioned earlier, Portland has become a magnet for talent. We’re lucky to have a consistent stream of outside talent relocating to our city. For decades, the city government has been making decisions that has kept Portland a livable metropolitan area that is attractive to creative talent.

Additionally, our startup community is young compared to many other cities. Because of that, we don’t have access to a vast supply of local mentors who have “been there and done that.” That said, Portland has done an admirable job of making connections outside of our city to shore up those shortcomings. We’ve been successful at establishing  relationships with other startup communities — like the Bay Area, Seattle, and Boulder — that allow us to leverage their expertise.

Another challenge of our immaturity is a lack of homegrown capital. To bridge that gap, our startups have managed to impress investors outside of our region, enabling them to secure the capital required for our companies to continue to grow.

What are some startups to watch coming out of the Portland area?

Some of the companies I’m watching most closely are:

  • Lytics, a service that enables companies of all sizes to make better use of their data to ensure happier customers
  • Opal, a platform that enables collaboration among marketers for the world’s leading brands
  • Our small FinTech cluster that includes companies like Mirador, Seed, Simple, and Vault
  • And our burgeoning group of biotech and cancer research companies, like Madorra

PIE Demo Day 2013. Photo by Aaron Hockley.

PIE Demo Day 2013. Photo by Aaron Hockley

Read more about startups emerging out of Portland at TechCo

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Emma Peck is a policy analyst at Engine, a nonprofit that supports the growth of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis and advocacy on local and national issues.