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Greenie entrepreneurs turning to Kickstarter

Website helps folks raise cash for innovative projects


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Laura Moulton started her pedal-powered library for the homeless with $4,000 raised over Kickstarter. Shes one of several Portlanders using the web fundraising service for sustainability themed projects. Search Kickstarter for Portland projects, and the popular site for raising funds over the web lists a lot of people hoping to fund their band's new album, music video or video game — pretty much par for the Kickstarter course, no matter the city.

But dig deeper into the postings from creative hopefuls around Portland and a common thread emerges, of projects large and small that seamlessly incorporate the city's sustainable, environmentally aware mantra into their start-up DNA.

There's the paper-making studio in St. Johns, whose founders raised $13,032 to open a business where you can turn junk mail, old clothes and even plants into paper.

There’s a free app that aims for magazine-style coverage of the "low-car life" in Portland.

There's the documentary on the environmental challenges and promises of the Willamette River.

And there’s the bicycle-powered street library that lends out donated books to the homeless. 

We could go on and on and on. The local-and-sustainable theme is strong enough on Kickstarter and similar “crowd-funding” platforms like IndieGoGo, GoFundMe and ChipIn that Mayor Sam Adams' office recently highlighted sustainable projects on the city's curated Kickstarter page, which chooses a different theme every few months.

"This could only really have happened in Portland," says Gary A. Hanson, who, with his partner, Jennifer Woodward, recently raised money from 56 backers on Kickstarter for their newly opened paper-making studio, Pulp and Deckle. "There is a certain optimism here, a big support for anyone who is trying to do something on their own,” Hanson says. “And in Portland especially, people respond to sustainable art forms."

The money they raised will let them make several major equipment purchases. "We really tried to go into this without having to get a bank loan or go into debt," Henson says.

"Our contributors were interested in sustainability — in efforts to make things from materials that were already around, not just buying more mass-produced items," Woodward says.

Kickstarter is emerging as the Groupon of 2012: often imitated and growing exponentially. Its website says that so far, nearly 3 million people have helped fund about 30,000 projects, to the tune of about $350 million. A small handful of those raised more than $1 million, including $1.4 million for a Portland-conceived-and-designed iPhone dock.

Most of the local green-themed projects have set more modest goals.

Pedaling books

Take Laura Moulton, a mother, writer and writing instructor who asked for $4,000 to fund Street Books, her modern take on the bookmobile that lends books to those living on the streets, via an old-school library card and honor system. No ID is necessary, a boon for those who have no permanent address.

Moulton raised $5,345, enough to keep her sturdy reverse tricycle, equipped with a custom-made front wagon to shelve her books, going during the cold, wet winter. Library hours are once a week, and Moulton will pedal around to areas where the homeless tend to congregate, from the tent site at the gates of Chinatown to Skidmore Fountain.

Westerns are popular, and romances have their fans, Moulton says, as do the stack of comic books she carries. She particularly relishes when patrons want to talk to her about books they've borrowed, like an Occupy Portland veteran who borrowed a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden” and then wanted to debate the book's still-relevant message on civil disobedience.

It's all grown more than Moulton ever thought it would. She set out to do an art project and finds herself now the de facto director of a nonprofit. But she's full of ideas for the future, like the book club she wants to start with her patrons. 

"I could have parked a car and opened up my trunk," she acknowledges. "But this (her  bike) is eye-catching — people have to make a decision about stopping, and curiosity often trumps avoidance. Sustainability was certainly a consideration, with regards to relationships and accessibility to people."

Lower in charcoal

Payan ole-MoiYoi, a designer who bounces between Seattle and Portland, worked with the community at ADX, a Southeast Portland communal incubator/workspace, to design, develop and build his "Kenyan stove." That fetched $18,869 in Kickstarter funds, from 287 backers.

The stove, which runs on wood chips and can be easily reproduced for around $5 in materials costs, is aimed at bringing down the high use of charcoal in ole-MoiYoi's native Kenya.

Charcoal, he says, is notably energy inefficient and emits high levels of carbon monoxide. With the Kickstarter funding, ole-MoiYoi and his partner are moving to Kenya, where he hopes to "jumpstart a new wood-gas stove industry."

Unsurprisingly, a number of Portland-based Kickstarter projects rely on the bicycling lifestyle, including journalist Michael Andersen's pitch to raise enough money to transform “Portland Afoot,” his monthly magazine about low-car life, into a tablet/smartphone version. “Portland Afoot,” which covers ground ranging from rankings of the city's best bus lines to the low-down on car-sharing, raised $5,254 from 188 backers, enough to move forward with the new format.

Despite his success, Andersen says the experience was nerve-racking.

Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, meaning that if you don't raise your targeted amount, you get none of the money. Donations were slow in coming, especially during the middle of his drive, Andersen says, and though he's a huge supporter of public transport and bike-related projects in the city, he found himself cursing the competition during his own campaign.

"We just want to be the main low-car thing on Kickstarter in Portland for these 30 days, PLEASE," he remembers thinking.