Welcome to part one of a three-part series on Portland's business incubators, a redhot segment of businesses and nonprofits that makes designing and launching your business its business. We'll explore incubators for social, food and design entrepreneurs, and discover why Portland is a great place to launch a business and how business incubators play a new, pivotal role in bringing ideas to the market.

Updated: 11/7/2012

Back in 2004, Cindy Cooper and her husband were working on a business idea: connect Spanish-language tutors in Guatemala, by videoconference, with students all over the world. Students would get affordable lessons, and the teachers would have additional income and, hopefully, a path out of poverty.

Today, that company, Speak Shop, is a prime example of how a good idea, given the right support, can have a positive impact in the world. Cooper herself sits at the hub of Portland's entrepreneurial spirit and its social consciousness.

Cooper now runs Portland State University's Social Innovation Incubator (SII), which she says is "focused on unleashing the power of business for social impact." Business incubators, such as SII, play a new, pivotal role in bringing ideas like Speak Shop to the market.

Social Innovation Incubator

Cindy Cooper, Director of the Social Innovation Incubator
Cindy Cooper, Director of the Social Innovation Incubator

Cooper left Nike in 1998 to get a graduate business degree, but she also had a mission.

"I was struck with this concept of how social entrepreneurship can be used to change social problems at their root," she says.

Having run a business incubator in the San Francisco area, she looked around for similar resources in Portland and did not find many options. What she did find was Starve-Ups, which had started in 2000, when the founders of seven companies "wanted to be in a founders-only environment where we could share the true details of what was working and what was not," says John Friess, one of those co-founders and the CEO of Journey Gym.

While not specifically focused on social entrepreneurship, Starve-Ups claims an impressive record. Of the original seven companies, Friess says, "Six became multi-million-dollar businesses, two were acquired for a return to investors, and one made the Fortune 500 list."

What works at Starve-Ups, Friess says, is the notion of "pure mentorship." By keeping the group capped at 22 member companies (there's an annual application process for entry) and insisting on strict confidentiality, participants can feel free to be open and honest.

Sustainable Harvest invests more than 60 percent of its operating expenses into training, technology and infrastructure for nearly 200,000 coffee growers in 13 countries. Photo © Clay Enos.
Sustainable Harvest invests more than 60 percent of its operating expenses into training, technology and infrastructure for nearly 200,000 coffee growers in 13 countries. Photo © Clay Enos.

"You get to know all 22 models within the current membership," Friess says. "We tell people about the other companies, lead one another to investors, share resources and employees. Anything you need, you can get from the group."

Cooper, meanwhile, took a teaching job at PSU; SII was launched there in 2010 as part of Impact Entrepreneurs. "We're working with new ideas to help them come to fruition by offering them technical support, strategic advice, networks, and intellectual and social capital," she says. "The connection is they all have explicit social and environmental objectives, whether they are nonprofit or not."

SII's first client was Portland-based Sustainable Harvest, a coffee importer that invests more than 60 percent of its operating expenses into training, technology and infrastructure for nearly 200,000 coffee growers in 13 countries.

Dane Loraas and Jacen Greene, Sustainable Harvest
Dane Loraas and Jacen Greene, Sustainable Harvest

Jacen Greene, a PSU graduate, former development and finance analyst for Sustainable Harvest and now social enterprise consultant, says the company worked with SII to launch "an online platform to track deliveries and shipments more effectively. Co-ops can track each batch of coffee to its final export, and farmers can be paid more accurately."

Also through SII, Sustainable Harvest came into contact with fellow member Central City Concern. "We would normally never interact," Greene says, "but we met through the incubator." Now the two organizations are working together on a CCC-branded coffee roaster, providing employment and training to CCC clients.

Springboard Innovation, Portland Ten Project, Co-working and VOIS Business Alliance

Amy Pearl, founder of Springboard Innovation.
Amy Pearl, founder of Springboard Innovation.

SII is not Portland's only such nexus for social innovators. Springboard Innovation, founded in 2005, helps people who are passionate about helping but not sure what to do, says founder Amy Pearl.

"Our educational program (called Local Agenda) helps community members figure out what they want to do," she says. "The incubation part is connecting them with an expert mentor group as well as early-stage funding."

Springboard is developing an initiative called Hatch: An Innovation Incubation Lab, which Pearl says will "generate, incubate and launch, all the way through to market, social and environmental solutions via enterprise." The vision, she says, is entrepreneurs getting affordable rent and mentors from the corporate world in a large space that would also include education and professional services, galleries and even retail.

The Portland Ten Project is less focused on social innovation but has been offering programs to local startups for years. Its Six Week Sprint program, limited to 10 participants at a time, includes peer-based mentoring in business skills such as financial and project management.

Another common feature in town is co-working and support from places like NedSpace, TenPod and Collective Agency.

With a slightly more political angle, VOIS Business Alliance is just over two years old and already has more than 100 members attending networking meetings at member businesses, says founder and president Sattie Clark.

"We are oriented toward sustainable businesses, but we also include some nonprofits and individuals," Clark says. "We're an incubator in the sense that we encourage and support businesses to become more sustainable. We also have a policy focus. One reason VOIS was founded was the belief that the voice of sustainable business could influence policy."


Why Is Portland a Hotbed for Incubators?

As to why there's so much of this activity in Portland, Greene of Sustainable Harvest sees "a huge cultural component in Portland. PSU has one of the 25 best sustainability programs in the world, and I think that's because there's so much interest in the community. Businesses here are trying to respond to that and behave in a responsible way."

As for Cooper—A business owner, teacher, connector of people, and director of a business incubator—she sees the local sustainability movement as particularly engaged.

"We attract people who have a value system that makes this a hotbed for this kind of work," she says. "I see the connection between business, society and the environment happening everywhere."

She also sees incubators playing a role not only in boosting local businesses, but attracting more of the same to Portland.

"I see a growing enabling community and desire to enable one another," she says. "If you're choosing to start a business, and if you know there are active incubators in Portland, you might select Portland or choose to stay here."

Do you have an additional resource for entrepreneurs, or an experience with an incubator to share? Share your knowledge in the comment section.