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Tech startups face challenges

Risks include crossing 'the valley of death'

The challenges of turning ideas and discoveries at universities into money-making products that benefit the Oregon economy were discussed by during the Portland Business Alliance's monthly breakfast forum.

Experts in the field used dramatic phases to describe the gap that must be overcome, including 'the valley of death' and 'crossing the chasm.' All agreed that private capital must be obtained and good business practices must be followed by those with a more creative or technical background.

The obstacles are especially steep in Oregon, the experts said, because much of the money and expertise is currently based in California and Washington, where successful start up companies are tempted to move.

'A lot of Oregon startups are being funded with out-of-state money. Part of the challenge is retaining these companies. There is a strong force field pulling them to where the money is. The state needs to figure out how to keep them here,' said Ron Adams, executive associate vice president for research at Oregon State University.

Other speakers included: Chuck Williams, executive director of technology transfers at the University of Oregon; Dan Snyder, president and chief operating officer for MolecularMD; and Lynnor Stevenson, chief executive officer for DesignMedix Inc.

The Portland City Council is creating an Innovation Quadrant that includes the Oregon Health and Sciences University, Portland State University, Portland Community College and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. New research labs will be included in the Collaborative Life Sciences Center being constructed in South Waterfront by OHSU and the Oregon University System.

All of the speakers agreed that universities conduct unobligated research that can be turned into products that support well-paying jobs. Dozens of companies have successfully spun off from the UO and OSU in recent years, generated hundreds of millions in revenue and supporting thousands of jobs, Adams and Williams said.

But the process is fraught with uncertainty and there is no guarantee of success, in large part because university-based researchers do not necessarily have the needed business connections or experiences. According to Stevenson, a number of so-called angel groups have sprung up in recent years, pooling private money to help finance viable products.

Stevenson said the available money is still far below what is needed, however. She called on the State of Oregon to increase its support for start up companies.

'The angel groups are trying,' Stevenson said.

Business management experience is also important, especially when a company is first beginning to grow, Snyder said.

'The most important part of any start up is having good management in place. Management experience early on is essential,' Snyder said.

Stevenson, who is working with Portland State University to help start new companies, says she frequently recommends that start ups contract for management help.

'If the manager brings value to the company, he can he hired,' Stevenson said.

The PBA breakfast forums are sponsored by the University of Oregon and the Pamplin Media Group, which owns the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers, Inc. Wednesday's forum was also sponsored by the Oregon Health and Sciences University.