Sustainable Valley: Southern Oregon is wired and ready for tech growth

Southern Oregon is no stranger to high technology innovators. Now, there’s the new Sustainable Valley initiative and the emergence of a substantial, local Angel investing group: Jefferson Grapevine.

[Editor: Turns out Portland isn’t the only city seeing a surge in tech startups. Southern Oregon has its fair share of burgeoning companies, as well. Charlie McHenry provides a firsthand account of what’s happening down south.]

Southern Oregon is no stranger to high technology innovators. The software utilities segment was practically invented in the region. Central Point Software’s “PC Tools” and Paul Mace Software’s “Mace Utilities” were the earliest players in what would become a very definable segment of the software market. During the mid-90’s, the So. Oregon chapter of the Software Association of Oregon was the state’s largest. Later, the So. Oregon Telecommunications & Technology Council became a regional business power, and influenced the statewide broadband build-out.

Today, after suffering like most rural regions during the economic downturn, the region is again turning to technology in order to re-build a thriving business community and create new, family-wage jobs.

The area’s new “Sustainable Valley” initiative, led by Mark Von Holle of S&B James Construction and Jessica Gomez of Rogue Valley Microdevices, is gaining traction and supporters. One aim of the group is to create a viable business “incubator” for tech startups. The group has obtained a commitment of space from Medford’s US Bank, and is lobbying for significant financial support from the city of Medford. The incubator as imagined will provide space and support services for small startups that need an environment conducive to acceleration and growth. Candidate companies are already lining up to participate.

Of even more importance is the emergence of a substantial, local Angel investing group: Jefferson Grapevine. The group is well underway, with more accredited investors than originally projected and considerably more funding than predicted. Its first competition is scheduled for this first quarter of 2011, and is estimated to yield $125,000 in funding for the winning business plan—as well as side-deals for worthy participants. The DeBoer family of Lithia Motors fame, and the Numes family of Naumes Fruit are both involved, as well as a number of individual accredited investors. This, of course, will help mitigate the need for local startups to make the trek to Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park or to Seattle to speak with the usual suspects.

Companies that are setting the stage for hi-tech growth include the new Paul Mace venture: Symbolic Flight, which has just released a powerful augmented reality navigation program for pilots that promises to revolutionize pre-flight and during flight planning and navigation. Paul is a frequent flier in his vintage Texas T-6 Trainer—a real “warbird.” Prior to this new venture, Paul played a role in the launch of TiVo—where the younger staff was fond of calling him Yoda.

Computer gaming legend, Trilobyte Games, has just been re-organized and re-launched blockbuster game The 7th Guest for Apple’s iPhone and iPad. The original game sold over 2 million copies and grossed in excess of $150 million in sales. The newly re-organized venture is a candidate for space in the business incubator.

Ashland’s Open Door Networks leads the region in iOS development with 98 current titles available on Apple’s iTunes App Store. Founder Alan Oppenheimer (a former senior systems engineer at Apple) and his partner Jim Teece of Ashland-based Project A software, aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Their collaboration is hiring every qualified programmer in the region as I write.

A number of other software startups, several woman-owned, are also in pre-launch organizing stage. Some are jumping on the “gamification” band wagon, others working with 3-D mapping projects.

Naturally, not all of these exciting startups will acquire local funding, so expect to see a So. Oregon contingent at upcoming Portland and Seattle based events. if you do, say hi and check out some of the great projects that are coming out of the Rogue River Valley.

With more than 20 years of public relations experience in the high tech sector, Charlie McHenry has seen his fair share of technology startups—and efforts to create tech communities that foster that kind of growth. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer for Trilobyte Games.

(Image courtesy Oregon Department of Transportation. Used under Creative Commons.)

  1. Todd—

    I don’t know of other online resources. Once a month there is a SOGGy event. This is the Southern Oregon Geeks Group, and it draws 15-50 people each time.

    This coming Thursday (JUN-02) will be the semi-annual (and very popular) show-and-tell event. We’re hosting it at Folium Partners, and things start at 6 PM with pay-what-you-will pizza and socializing before the main presentations.

    Other months, the group gathers at Four Daughters in Medford, in the upstairs area.

    The Jefferson Grapevine is another gathering, bi-monthly. Both groups can be discovered online with a bit of googling. Feel free to ping me directly via the Folium Partners site if you wish!

  2. John-

    Great to hear – very exciting news on the connection with OIT and efforts around helping SOU. I’m looking forward to staying on top of how these opportunities develop for the Rogue Valley over the next years, as I see tech and renewable energy as two big opportunities that the area desperately needs. Do you have suggestions of other sources for this type of news or ways to connect?

    I’m currently living in Bend working at an internet marketing boutique, but still have very strong ties to the region.

    Thanks for the information and here’s to a bright tech future in Southern Oregon!

  3. You point to one of our great hopes, @Todd. We have started building a relationship over the hill in K-Falls, working with some great professors and connecting with the students. The OIT program is much more about engineering, and next to nothing about web site design. It’s great to have found this resource so close to home!

    Well, two hours away. But that’s better than five hours away.

    We still have hope for SOU, but they really need to rework their curriculum and redefine what job an SOU computer sciences graduate is capable of fulfilling in today’s world. The saddest truth is that these kids leave SOU with up to $80K in school debt, and no job prospects. The OIT seniors in the software line are almost all looking at real job offers right now, two weeks before graduation.

    As a community, we must help SOU do better. Meanwhile, we’ll continue building our relationship with OIT and other schools.

  4. @John lee. Totally agree on the sou issue. I have several friends who headed to OIT for comp science and had to move to Portland, Seattle, s.f., etc. To find jobs. What about trying to target more of those grads?

  5. Wonderful story to see this morning; it gives technophiles hope for building jobs in the valley. At Folium Partners, we’re launching ModernBookFactory.com shortly, based on the technologies and processes we’ve developed to produce more than 1000 iOS apps for our clients over the last year. Given our expansion over the last nine months, I guarantee that Alan and Jim certainly aren’t the only ones hiring for tech in the valley, these days. Which is great!

    Thanks to groups like Southern Oregon Angels, Jefferson Grapevine, Sustainable Valley, and SOREDI, technology companies will have a better chance to build and thrive in southern Oregon.

    The biggest challenge will be developing a qualified work force. SOU is not providing graduates with the right level of knowledge and experience to fulfill the need. To strengthen a weak link in the chain for building a sustainable tech industry, my suggestion is that we all look to address this situation first.

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  7. Still nice to see “Paul Mace Software” come up now and again. I have many vivid and wonderful memories growing up in a family software biz in the 80s. Fun living them out again @ Urban Airship in PDX. Charlie is right, many great things have come from Southern Oregon when it comes to software.

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