As a transplanted Silicon Valley VC and now a regional investor, I often get asked, “How do we go about building up our local tech ecosystem?”
The short answer is, “One step at a time.”
In the beginning in Bend, “necessity was the mother of invention.” Local entrepreneurs just made it up as they went. But today we are intentionally engineering six distinct activities to support this tech cluster: entrepreneurial density, university, transportation, capital, accelerator, and business community.
Let’s look at each of these six elements in more detail and I’ll explain what we have been doing in Bend to accelerate each of these.
1. Entrepreneurial Density:
Density – the connection of like-minded firms and their support services – is a critical component of a cluster. The most fertile source of entrepreneurs is the population of existing entrepreneurial companies. But for clusters without sufficient firms you first need to attract companies to your region. However, it’s difficult to create density overnight. Entrepreneurs need to understand and believe the reasons why they should want to cluster in your region given there are other alternatives (nationally Silicon Valley or New York; regionally Seattle and Bellevue, Portland and Bend).
In addition to technical and entrepreneurial talent, a region also needs experienced executive talent with industry appropriate backgrounds and personal networks. The goal of this talent is to help mentor startups as they scale and navigate the myriad of issues they will face in growing their business.
Bend’s economic development agency (EDCO) and city leaders (VisitBend, City of Bend) get it – and have started communicating that Bend welcomes and is friendly to entrepreneurs and startups. Word is spreading and there are lots of people up and down the West Coast who know of and have been to Bend. But it’s easy to get drowned out by the noise from Silicon Valley and other cities in Washington and Oregon. That means that in regional communities like Bend, everyone needs to turn up the volume to consistently sing praises that will not only put the community on the map but also ensure it doesn’t slip.
Almost every successful tech cluster has a local technical university. This provides a source of technical talent, research, etc. It’s extremely difficult to import enough talent to fuel a rapidly growing tech cluster, so a university is critical to organically generate and retain talent within the region. In particular it’s critical to offer technical degrees that train the talent pool needed to drive the local tech cluster
OSU-Cascades is a new four-year university in Bend that is beginning the build out of its new campus in Bend and offer computer science and user design courses. This effort was over a decade in the making and something that the local community fought hard for.
Direct flights to the San Francisco Bay Area and other major metro areas (depending on location of the region) are vital to reduce the friction of conducting business, encourage talent to test drive your community, and attract investors and other ecosystem partners to the region.
Bend’s economic development agency (EDCO) has worked very hard to establish direct flights to major West Coast cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Denver. At times this required rallying local business leaders to make advance purchases of flights to ensure enough passenger volume for the airlines.
4. Local Early-Stage Risk Capital
Early stage venture funds are more important than your mother. If this doesn’t exist your regional cluster is dead-on-arrival. Organize risk-capital in the form of angel funds or venture funds, particularly at the early stage where the largest capital gap exists. This should be a strategic initiative within your state to close the capital gap with in-region capital sources.
Bend is now home to Seven Peaks Ventures and Cascade Angels, both born over the past year in response to the opportunity in the region. The state of Oregon is also making funds available to invest in and support the formation of venture funds within the state.
5. Local Entrepreneurial Community Entrepreneurial-driven Events
The local entrepreneurial community has been active in running Startup Weekends, launching the FoundersPad accelerator, running hackathons and Ruby on Rails conferences (Ruby on Ales), building out shared tech space, offering incentives (The Big Bend Theory) for startups to relocate to Bend from the Valley, and building up the state’s largest tech/venture conference, the Bend Venture Conference which is now going on its 11th year. There are many more efforts underway to build upon what has worked and continue the process of evolving and learning.
6. Business Community Support
One of the most difficult things to do is technically the easiest – a dispassionate self-assessment to understand what assets your community has and what you lack.
First, what is your value proposition to a family or business to locate in your region? Recognize that a big part of your job is to remove friction, drive awareness, and amplify the efforts of your local entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs attract other entrepreneurs, so it’s vital to kick start the cycle.
Next, identify your goal. Is it creating a job works program? Stopping brain drain in the region? Attracting and building some key core competency in the region? Ideally your existing talent base and ecosystem naturally support the “core competency magnet” you want to develop.
Finally, put your money where your mouth is – help fund the events and programs in the early years. Once the tech cluster forms, these activities will become self-funding. The ROI won’t be obvious for some early on, but will pay dividends in time.
Summary: Bend Is a Global Entrepreneurship Experiment
There are about 25,000 economic development agencies in regional markets across the U.S., all trying to expand the number of businesses that create products and services sold outside their region. These regional businesses create primary jobs that lead to the creation of local secondary jobs.
The Bend experiment is a model to consciously engineer an entrepreneurial cluster in a regional market to spur economic development and job creation.
In the past most regional growth strategies have focused on attracting established companies looking to expand or open a new plant. While it may be strategic for the region to recruit some of these established businesses, those deals usually involve huge tax subsidies and typically create a small finite number of jobs. What isn’t part of most regional growth plans is the organic growth of an entrepreneurial tech cluster in the region. If successful, sewing the seeds of entrepreneurship can lead to a more rapid and sustainable job growth for the region.
By engineering a regional tech cluster, we can impact the trajectory of growth in the region and:
- Slow and even reverse the historical migration of tech talent and capital out of the region/state
- Locally grow successful tech companies to become amazing primary job creators
- Recycle the wealth that is created by re-investing in the region versus transferring wealth to Silicon Valley
- Help local successful entrepreneurial and technical talent stay local – by creating their next startup in the region versus emigrating to Silicon Valley
- Create a more diversified and healthy economic base that includes tech entrepreneurs
The democratization of entrepreneurship has created a huge opportunity for any region with the right characteristics to create its own sustainable tech cluster. But, as with any true democracy, it won’t happen without the combined participation of the community and desire of entrepreneurs to lead the movement. This is happening in Bend, and I look forward to hearing from others about your own experiments.
- Regional tech clusters can be engineered if …
- the region has key attributes and a focused effort from the entrepreneurial and business community
- Opportunity exists for economic development in regions where tech clusters can be formed
- potential to dramatically increase the growth of entrepreneurship and job creation in the region.
- Entrepreneurs are the path to job creation and growth…
- attract them, reduce the friction to growth, and do everything possible to cause the wealth created to recycle locally
Photo Credit: Jill Rosell Photography