The Portland Incubator Experiment is 10 years old this year. It began as a sidebar of Wieden + Kennedy, but its reputation has continuously grown.
Founder Rick Turoczy still runs it to cultivate Portland tech startups, mostly Software as a Service (SaaS) companies. It may have moved offices many times, but it is still the best-known academy of startups. In tech dog years that decade amounts to an era of valuable history.
Turoczy and PIE are a safe bet for praise from the economic development end of government, and both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Prosper Portland staff made a show of supporting them at the 10th-anniversary party the Glass Labs, and at a recent Coffee with Cofounders session at WeWork.
Every late summer, applicants send in their proposals for why they would like some free desk space and mentorship inside PIE for nine months. The cohort is usually chosen in October and presents to the public by April.
This year, PIE is also offering PIE Shop, a manufacturing accelerator based in Autodesk, the CAD software company. (see sidebar)
In the application period, Turoczy runs a series of drop-in meetings for the curious.
The Business Tribune attended one recently at the home of Uncorked, a trendy east side design studio which has long been PIE-friendly. Hopeful entrepreneurs gathered at 7.30 a.m. on the risers at Uncorked to ask questions. First, he explained the difference between an accelerator and an incubator. PIE is looking to recruit 10 companies. "PIE is a misnomer. It's not an incubator; it's an accelerator. Incubators are designed to protect you from the real world. An accelerator, on the other hand, is designed to expose you to the real world as rapidly as we possibly can, to figure out if this is a sustainable solution."
"Sometimes we help people figure out what they don't really want in life," said Turoczy. That is, sometimes finders with a good idea don't want to be CEOs, or they don't want to go on endless dog-and-pony shows in front of investors.
Companies are often six months to a year old when they apply to PIE. "Some people have been working a side hustle for years; other folks say, 'I just came up with this thing.'" There's no preference one way or the other; they just have to have a good idea and be a good fit for the program.
Fit is subjective
"Sometimes we recognize a really promising inspirational team, and quite frankly, not a terribly exciting idea."
There's also serendipity. Turoczy recently had a company working on rocket technology while another company's founder was previously a rocket scientist. In that case, it was good to have them in the same room.
Nexgarden and Milk Run were another pairing since they were working in crossover verticals and supply chain.
The PIE team whittles the applications down to 16 to 20 companies, then interviews them.
Some people attend PIE all day every day, others less but are still present on the Slack channel.
"At the very minimum, it's a weekly check-in, there's a weekly status meeting with mentors."
Turoczy is known for being soft-spoken and humble — the opposite of the tech bro culture where PIE companies swim.
"One mistake, I will admit I made for five or six years of PIE, was I only deployed mentors on a skill set basis. So, 'This is the problem you're experiencing, here's the mentor that can help you with it.'"
Now he also uses mentors as connectors. "We have other folks who are very much like me. Like, I don't actually know anything. I just know a lot of people."
Real entrepreneurs of Portland
Brian Ostrovsky, CEO of the barter platform PDX Barter Exchange, was weighing his chances of getting into PIE. He has vast experience compared to the young founders. Ostrovski worked at Intel for 15 years and built several businesses for them.
"The problem with barter is, I have to need what you will have, and you have to need what I have." His goal is to bring 1,000 businesses together to make bartering more productive. He owns a couple of ice cream shops called "What's the Scoop?" in North Williams and the South Waterfront
With an exchange, one doesn't end up trying to exchange air conditioning service for $1,000 worth of ice cream, because there are other businesses in the network that can provide more appropriate goods and services: massage, car repair, house painting, or whatever is more applicable.
The phone becomes a point of sale device, and barterers can spend their credit by merely scanning a QR code.
"So far, everybody whom we pitched to said, 'Yeah, this totally makes sense to us. It helps our business; we're interested'. So, we have five cities that are interested in moving forward."
His task now is to get sales and direct marketing up and running — for the whole country. "It works everywhere, but it's locally focused. So, you need to find somebody who has that relationship. And, I need to be able to hand them basically a suitcase full of tools, the platform is up and running, we can spin up a barter exchange."
He feels ready to grow. He said at Intel, consumer marketing is not their strength.
"When you essentially take sand and turn it into gold, it's very difficult to understand the complexities of consumer products."
He worked on a baby monitor whose crowdfunding he called "a spectacular flop." He learned, by giving away $5 Starbucks cards to people who would answer his questions, that people lose interest if their baby products are late, since they outgrow them. So, waiting six months for a baby monitor to be designed and made is too long. Crowdfunding didn't work but the business ended up quite positive for his investors and sold to a medical wearables company in 2018.
Another hopeful was Hope Lobkowicz, who runs a company for sustainably designed and made textiles for baby products called Kindred Kin and Baby.
She works with a fair-trade printer in India, then takes the textiles and makes them into baby bed sheets and other bedding.
Again, ideas and great execution are not enough: marketing is the tough part.
"The biggest issue that I'm facing right now is working on brand awareness, marketing, and how to survive in scaling."
Having bootstrapped everything, Lobkowicz wants advice on when to take out loans or go for funding. She works from home so would prefer a desk in PIE. She is also deciding whether to do a Slice of PIE, the short version, or the full version. She has a part-time job as a technical consultant in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
"It's a pretty trying and lonely experience, being an entrepreneur, so I am looking for support and building my network of other entrepreneurs in Portland, and mentors."
PIE now has a second incubator, the PIE Shop. Based inside architectural software company Autodesk's Portland HQ in the Towne Storage building, it's an advanced manufacturing and prototyping incubator. Uncorked is a founding partner in the Innovation Quarter initiative, and acted as concierge and advisor to Autodesk as it looked to make
its mark in the Innovation Quarter (IQ), which runs from OMSI to the Burnside Bridge. The IQ aims to make the district "the center of gravity for a flourishing innovation ecosystem that attracts talent, entrepreneurs, and investment while propelling Portland, Oregon, to global prominence at the intersection of health, science, technology, and product design."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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