Startup PDX Challenge gives local entrepeneurs a helping hand

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF PDC - The New Market Theater building, 15 SW Ash in Portlands Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood will be the new home to the six winners of the Startup PDX Challenge.Entrepreneurs must have more than a great idea to get their business started.

Thanks to the Portland Development Commission’s Startup PDX Challenge, an international competition for entrepreneur networking where six winning entrepreneurs are given the extra boost they need.

In 2013, an entrepreneur was able to file three patents for smart glasses software. A startup was able to build a prototype of their produce that cleanses water using UV rays. Another new business secured corporate financing to back their program that helps people understand and pay medical bills.

All this and more was made possible by the annual Startup PDX Challenge. This year, applications opened May 20 and will close June 23. Six winning companies will receive $15,000 and an office space on Produce Row for one year.

PDC works to connect entrepreneurs and their startups to resources including programs, projects, organizations and news.

“Originally, we had designed it to help market a certain neighborhood … Produce Row,” says Katherine Krajnak, senior business development coordinator for PDC. After receiving 240 applicants for the Challenge in 2013, PDC shifted its focus to balancing ethnicity and gender inside new businesses.

“If you look at the workforce in technology and people who work in innovation economy, they’re overwhelmingly white male,” says Krajnak. “Our demographic is going to be shifting in the next two decades … it’s a huge opportunity for communities that traditionally have not earned high incomes.”

The startups receive funding from the PDC, making this challenge stand out from similar programs. “This is the first competition of its kind funded by an agency. We still own that,” says Anne Mangan, senior communications coordinator with PDC.

In supporting gender and ethnic diversities this year, PDC hopes to mentor young leaders to bring Portland’s next generation of businesses into a robust economic future.

“There’s a lot of research out there that diverse teams are more successful,” says Krajnak. “Diverse leadership, whether it be gender or ethnicity balance, your company is going to do better.”

Nationwide, from 2001 to 2011 the number of white students enrolled in preschool through 12th grade decreased from 60 to 52 percent. By 2023, about 45 percent of students in public schools will be white according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

According to Portland Public Schools enrollment reports, about 38.5 percent of Portland students were ethnic minorities in 2001. In 2013, 44 percent of students were ethnic minorities.

“Even though Portland is generally seen as a very white city, it’s not -- the future of our workforce is very, very mixed,” says Krajnak. “We’re focusing on entrepreneurs because if we target leaders, they are the mentors set the culture of inclusiveness.”

“Local minorities in the schools grow up and are the work force,” says Mangan.

Of the 240 new businesses that entered the 2013 Challenge, the six winners were Safi Water Works, CoPatient, Seamus Golf, ClutchPlay Games, OnTheGo Platforms and Walker Tracker.

Amy Smith, CEO and co-founder of Safi Water Works, says the office space and $10,000 grant were invaluable to her business.

“At the time they made the (Challenge) announcement, the ink on our corporate papers was still drying,” says Smith. “With the $10,000 grant, we were able to build our prototype, and getting that completed was a significant milestone for us.”

The Challenge is an incubator for startups, according to Krajnak.

“Most accelerators and incubators that give cash awards generally take equity in the company and we’re not doing that,” says Krajnak, adding that it makes a difference to self-funded entrepreneurs who don’t want to lose a percentage of their company to investors.

PDC will also provide winners with PR, HR, marketing, hiring and legal services along with membership to eight entrepreneur programs and organizations.

“The idea was not necessarily to create a new program, but to get people connected in,” says Krajnak, who connects the winners to PDC’s partners. “We thought it would be worthwhile to focus on people not connected into the network.”

It worked. “When you’re a startup with limited resources and limited staff, it’s really easy to feel like an island, like you’re out there doing it all by yourself,” says Smith. “Having that community and being a part of an intentional startup community is invaluable.”

Finalists are offered a discount at Forge Portland coworking space, scholarships to the Small Business Development Center entrepreneur class and memberships to seven entrepreneur programs, in total worth $4,000.

Throughout the summer, PDC will whittle down contestants with online voting and then by interviewing the semi-finalists. The winners will be announced in September.

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