Metro area high-tech golden age looms

Cantwell, Wyden hear about positive steps, obstacles

By

Published:

 
photoU.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon

()

Want to fix the local economy? There may just be an app for that.

High-tech companies in Portland and Clark County are on the verge of a golden age, entrepreneurs from three dozen area businesses told Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Friday.

Startup leaders said they are concerned about a tax code that sometimes lumps them in with big Wall Street firms and other times treats them as too small for tax breaks. They also said they need more trained programmers to fill all their openings.

But even so, most appeared bullish on their business prospects, a feeling affirmed by Bruce Elgort, CEO of Vancouver-based Elguji Software LLC, who was among those invited to the Portland event.

"Bringing together local companies to talk about the real world with politicians is critical," Elgort said at the end of two hours of conversation that centered on developers of apps, the cleanly packaged software applications used on smart phones and tablet computers.

Some 8,000 metro area residents work in the world of apps, a professional field that didn't exist locally just six years ago, according to estimates from the two senators.

Before the meeting at a technology firm's Northwest Portland office, Cantwell said she expected companies to raise concerns about high-tech education, and about access to startup capital.

She was right on the first point -- the crowd of more than 50 people, packed in a room without air conditioning on a muggy day -- erupted in murmurs of agreement when Cantwell endorsed efforts to get more high school and college students to explore computer programming.

On the second point? "Access to capital may not be the same issue it was five years ago," said Josh Reich, founder and CEO of Portland-based Simple, which has raised some $15 million to develop banking alternatives on the Web and in app form.

The Portland metro area continues to be overlooked by many big investors in Silicon Valley and on the East Coast, a problem that local startups have complained about for years. But a growing community of local investors is helping companies get cash to grow, said veteran venture capitalist Angela Jackson, a managing director at Portland Seed Fund.

Clark County has slightly more of a challenge than Portland, because Oregonians often forget the metro area extends north of the Columbia River, Elgort said. But he did not see that obstacle as insurmountable.

Cantwell and Wyden both said they were pleasantly surprised to hear that app developers are getting the startup funds they need.

"This is the first time in 15 years I'm not hearing worries about access to capital," Wyden said.

Instead of seeking government help to raise more money, several business owners said wish they could spend less of it on federal payroll taxes -- perhaps by deferring some payments early on if they use the savings to hire more people.

With tax cuts backed by President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush set to expire later this year, Wyden said he expects to see a major overhaul of the country's tax code launched over the next six months. Interested entrepreneurs could work with his staff to help him advocate for their interests, Wyden suggested.

Even as business owners expressed some frustrations, the mood at Friday's meeting with senators was largely upbeat.

"I see more growth, more opportunity and more potential than I've ever seen" in the Portland-Vancouver area, said Rick Turoczy, editor of the Silicon Florist news blog and co-founder of the Portland Incubator Experiment, which provides space and funding to new tech companies.

Cantwell, who worked in high-tech in Seattle in the 1990s, said the stories shared by local technology firms reminded her of an earlier transformation she witnessed in the Puget Sound area. Once considered a third-string region by Silicon Valley's tech behemoths, Seattle now has such a tech-savvy workforce that companies such as Facebook are opening outposts there.

If metro-area tech firms continue to grow, and academic programs like those at Washington State University Vancouver continue to graduate the skilled workers the region needs, it's only a matter of time before Portland and Southwest Washington undergoes a similar transformation, Cantwell said.