Oregon startups are more than just soft(ware): 5 "hard" technology Oregon startups to watch in 2016

Editor’s Note: At the end of last year, I published a post on Portland startups I’d be watching in 2016. Like many list posts, people wondered why they weren’t on it. It happens. I can’t list everyone. But even more importantly, I don’t know about everything. So when folks asked for more physical world sort of startups, I asked my friends at ONAMI to create a list. And they have obliged.

An old HP colleague of mine starting a microelectronics miniaturization company (for wearables, etc.) in Sunnyvale likes to refer to the Bay Area as “Coder Valley”—not so much silicon there these days (though there is still plenty in the Silicon Forest).  Indeed, there has been a major shift in angel/venture investment toward non-physical products.  Sifting the 3Q15 Moneytree report, roughly 63% of venture investment was in “soft” categories (software, media, IT services, fintech, healthcare services) and 27% went to “hard” categories (biotech, medical devices, industrial/energy, semiconductors, computer equipment , electronics) and 10% went to other things such as retail.

In “soft,” investors sense lower risk (early customer revenue) and quicker exit opportunities (usually acquisitions). I’ll suggest that “hard” has some offsetting advantages of its own, including strong intellectual property, access to significant non-dilutive early stage funding (SBIR etc.) and a greater likelihood of ‘changing the world’ with socially/globally unique innovation.

Rick has generously invited me to guest post about some of the early stage physical/chemical/biological technology-based companies in Portland and Oregon that I think are interesting. Here are five to start with in the recent/recent past ONAMI portfolio that exemplify a wide range of opportunities well-suited to our region. All received significant non-dilutive funding ranging from $700K to $3M or higher:

Energy Storage Systems (industrial/energy, Portland/Tigard).  Imagine lowest cost (well below Li-ion) energy storage of the sort needed to stably integrate renewables into the grid. Then imagine that it uses only abundant and benign materials.  Now shipping. $3.2M series A led by Pangaea Ventures in October 2015.  ESS recently moved from incubation quarters at the PSBA to 22,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Durham.

Tomegavax (bio/pharma, Portland). One of the hottest topics in cancer prevention and treatment is marshaling the body’s immune system to fight the disease. T-vax is developing virus vectors that deliver lifelong immunity against a variety of cancers and infectious diseases, building on over $100M in research at OHSU’s world-class Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute.

SupraSensor Technologies (chemical electronics/precision agriculture, Eugene).  Precision ag technology managing precious water resources figured prominently at the recent Oregon Leadership Forum.  The next step is measuring and managing fertilizer application and runoff. University of Oregon spinout Suprasensor’s unique technology accurately and reliably measures soil and water nitrate levels locally and in real time.

Inpria (semiconductors, Corvallis). To process bits, you need electrons. And that’s what Moore’s Law kept giving us faster and cheaper until recently via finer patterning. Continued progress requires an innovation in photopatterning material and Oregon State University spinout Inpria has it. $7.3M+ Series A funded in 2014 by Intel Capital, Samsung Ventures, Oregon Angel Fund, others.

Nano3D Systems (electronics, Beaverton/Corvallis). With or without finer lithographic features, arguably the hottest topic in electronics manufacturing is 3D integration to cram more function into your next phone or wearable. Materials and process innovation for TSV (through silicon vias) is a high performance – and high cost way to stack chips.  Nano3D Systems will make it low cost.

Skip Rung is a senior high-technology research and development (R&D) executive with over 25 years of engineering and management experience in complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) process technology, integrated circuit design and packaging, MEMS, microfluidics, and inkjet printing.