Strictly Business: Innovation that's down to earth

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

The sky is the limit, or so it seems, when it comes to collecting, organizing, and dispensing information. The cloud has become our chosen image for seemingly limitless information storage warehouses, reflecting our confidence that all information soon will be at our fingertips all the time.

That cloud of collected knowledge -- if not necessarily insight -- hung over the Fort Vancouver Artillery Barracks at Tuesday's Clark County PubTalk. Of the five local and regional companies on hand to make seven-minute business pitches, four were talking about moving information in and out of cloud storage. They pitched products that pushed technologies in ways that will help people save money, time, or both.

Just one of the businesses took a different route -- perhaps best described as below the clouds rather than in them. Irrigation Accessories, based in Vancouver, described a recently developed innovation in what are called boombacks, which are water-dispersal attachments to the massive "center pivot" sprinkler systems used on vast farms. Its products are not something you or I would ever buy, but we all benefit from this technology when we eat consistently fresh vegetables.

The company's "Hose Boom" boombacks, company owner Jon Johnston explained, effectively spread irrigation water more evenly over the soil, improving water infiltration into soil and reducing runoff. That means less water used, and less pollution from runoff.

The technology is less than glamorous. Farm irrigation, if we think about it at all, is something we take for granted. But asked to choose which company they would invest in, the PubTalk audience favored Irrigation Accessories over any of the four more dazzling startups: Knowledge Vault, of Camas, which manages and organizes information from countless sources for home, business, or education; Dwellingo, of Portland, which is developing information-sharing technology for homebuyers and sellers; Mobile Warrior, of Ridgefield, with a system for managing reports and record-keeping in the trucking industry; and What's Crowded, of Camas, compiling information that will help consumers avoid crowds in restaurants and other public places.

In that crowd, Irrigation Accessories stood out not only for its mechanical rather than digital innovation, but also for its longevity. Formed in 1962, the company has been sold three times to longtime employees. When Johnston became its fourth owner in 2005, he had barely gotten his feet when the recession hit. He wondered if he would be the guy left holding the bag when the company's business dried up.

Instead of folding, Johnston came up with a new product line that now appears to be saving the company. Its boombacks sales continue to grow and Johnston expects them to climb to half of the company's revenues within a year. He's working with Washington State University on a research project that aims to quantify the added water infiltration when his company's boombacks are used, and to calculate the product's cost-benefit analysis.

With just three employees -- down from six before the recession -- Irrigation Accessories is hardly an economic engine for Clark County. But instead of holding the bag, Johnston has turned adversity into success. Coming up, he says, is a big feature story on his company's technology in Potato Grower magazine.

"I finally made it," Johnston deadpans. "I'm on the cover of Potato Grower."

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.