#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Rick Turoczy, Cofounder at Portland Incubator Experiment (Portland, OR)
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
How did you get involved in the Portland area startup ecosystem and what is your role?
My involvement in the Portland startup community was more or less an accident.
I’ve been here for more than 20 years and have worked in startups the whole time. After spending a dozen years on the corporate side of the desk, I began to write about the projects I was seeing on a blog—the companies, the people, the events, the community. This allowed me to start connecting people. Now, I’ve been blogging about the Portland startup community on Silicon Florist for a decade and I’ve been working on the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), a curated co-working space, for over eight years.
Currently, I spend the majority of my time connecting dots and helping entrepreneurs short circuit the network to make connections more quickly.
Can you tell us more about PIE and the role it plays in Portland?
At the most basic level, PIE is an ongoing experiment intended to help corporations, governments, and other well-established entities to effectively collaborate with startups for mutual benefit.
From a corporate engagement perspective, PIE began as a partnership and collaboration between award-winning, global creative firm Wieden+Kennedy (the creators of “Just do it,” among others) and the Portland startup community. Throughout our history, we have been lucky enough to collaborate with a number of partners, including Coca-Cola, Daimler, Google, Intel, Nike, and Target, as well as government entities like the Oregon Governor’s Board of Film & Television, the State of Oregon, and Prosper Portland (formerly known as the Portland Development Commission).
From a startup perspective, PIE builds better founders. While the risk of starting a company means that most of our companies are only companies for a brief time, all of our participants learn what it’s like to be a founder and how they can improve the next startup they create.
Throughout our history, we’ve experimented with coworking, incubating, mentoring, investing, and accelerating. We’ve tried to capture and open source all of those learnings in the PIE Cookbook so that anyone, anywhere has a framework for experimenting with their own startup community and ecosystem.
Ultimately, when it comes right down to it, PIE strives to be the hub and the connective tissue that helps make it easier to be a founder in Portland, to help people gain access to the resources they need, and to ensure that we are building a collaborative and inclusive community of amazing entrepreneurs.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened for Portland in the past year?
To me, the most exciting thing to happen to Portland in the past year has been an increased interest in the inclusiveness and the diversity of our community. We’re also seeing new funds being established specifically to capitalize on existing momentum, like the XXcelerate Fund, which focuses on investing in women founders and the Elevate Inclusive Fund, which focuses on investing in historically underrepresented founders.
Portland has had a number of thriving tech companies and startups for years. What makes it an ideal place to start a company?
Portland is driven by a culture of curiosity, craft, and collaboration. People here are intrigued by problems and seek solutions regardless of whether there is a viable business model or a promise of funding. Members of the community are also always willing to help one another. Portland is very much a “rising water floats all boats” rather than a “winner takes all” sort of community.
I tend to refer to Portland as a giant R&D shop. Founders here are somewhere between hobbyist and academic. For them, exploring the problem provides as much value and insight as solving the problem. That passion means that many companies start as grassroots efforts and accidental enterprises.
Finally, at a time where a lack of accessible talent is negatively impacting many startup ecosystems, Portland has become a magnet for talent. But despite its recent growth, Portland remains an extremely livable city. That continues to make it attractive to very talented and creative folks who decide to relocate to Portland.
Portland historically has been a manufacturing city. What has it done to embrace 21st century technologies and industries that have kept it from struggling the way other manufacturing cities have?
From lumber, steel, and wool in its early days, to shipbuilding during the war, to Intel’s and Daimler’s latest technology, the Portland area boasts a rich history in manufacturing. This is a city that makes a variety of things at a variety of scales.
It’s that variety that has helped Portland continue to thrive when so many other manufacturing centers have struggled. We’ve never really been “all in” on any one specific pursuit and we have been lucky to have that diversity to make our economy more resilient.
And it’s only getting better. Technology is changing the world of manufacturing, by both simplifying the ability to manufacture and by making the tools and processes more accessible. As a result, we’re seeing a grassroots renaissance of manufacturing in Portland.
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
We’ve been lucky to import three significant contributors to our ecosystem: talent, mentorship, and capital.
As I mentioned earlier, Portland has become a magnet for talent. We’re lucky to have a consistent stream of outside talent relocating to our city. For decades, the city government has been making decisions that has kept Portland a livable metropolitan area that is attractive to creative talent.
Additionally, our startup community is young compared to many other cities. Because of that, we don’t have access to a vast supply of local mentors who have “been there and done that.” That said, Portland has done an admirable job of making connections outside of our city to shore up those shortcomings. We’ve been successful at establishing relationships with other startup communities — like the Bay Area, Seattle, and Boulder — that allow us to leverage their expertise.
Another challenge of our immaturity is a lack of homegrown capital. To bridge that gap, our startups have managed to impress investors outside of our region, enabling them to secure the capital required for our companies to continue to grow.
Are there specific public policies or regulatory frameworks that have enabled startup growth in Portland?
The startup community, including myself, is just beginning to understand the impact of policies and regulations. We have benefited from their impact on our businesses and the livability of our city, but the nuances of the policymaking process remains somewhat elusive to us.
I can say that laws around urban growth/transportation and regulations that protect the natural areas around our state have had an important, indirect impact on our startup ecosystem. They have helped to preserve the livability of our city, the collaborative nature of our community, and our connection to our natural surroundings. All of these things make Oregon not only a special place to work, but also to live.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of the Portland area?
Yes! Some of the companies I’m watching most closely are:
Lytics, a service that enables companies of all sizes to make better use of their data to ensure happier customers;
Opal, a platform that enables collaboration among marketers for the world’s leading brands;
And our burgeoning group of biotech and cancer research companies, like Madorra.