Last week's Bend Venture Conference, a two-day event designed to vault promising startup companies into the realm of well-funded enterprises, sold out the Tower Theater in downtown Bend and sent winners home with more than $620,000 in investment awards, cash prizes, and services.
Conference attendees enjoyed networking opportunities, educational seminars, and a keynote address by Google Executive Darren Pleasance. The main events of the conference were investment competitions between two categories of companies, early stage and growth stage.
Only companies located in Central Oregon were eligible to compete in the early stage category, and they typically shared the following characteristics: They had yet to generate revenue or were in their early stages of generating revenue, and they were testing their product in the market. They were also close to "proof of concept," meaning they were approaching the stage when they could demonstrate their product had real-world applications.
The early stage application process included two screening events, beginning with Upstart Day, a quick review of contenders including feedback from a panel of professionals. Select companies were invited to the PubTalk Competition held at McMenamins in downtown Bend on September 24. The five resulting finalists were given the chance to make three-minute pitches to a panel of judges at BVC. The award in this category was a fixed amount of $15,000 sponsored by BendBroadband.
SnoPlanks, a Bend-based manufacturer of snowboards, took the early stage prize, which was given to the company that conference attendees believed was best positioned to benefit from the money.
According to Brian Vierra, venture catalyst for Economic Development of Central Oregon, which manages the BVC, the snowboard maker won in part because of its special appeal to the Bend audience.
"A lot of people in attendance were snowboarders," Vierra says. "Plus, the company had a polished presentation and showed a real understanding of their product." Vierra adds that SnoPlanks, unlike some technology companies competing at the event, had a physical product they were able to show on stage.
The four other finalists in the early stage competition run the gamut of concepts. AirFit aims to install gym and shower facilities for travelers at major U.S. airports. QuakeWarn is developing a system to alert subscribers' mobile phones when tremors are detected nearby. Radventure seeks to connect travelers with local experts to help them enjoy personalized outdoor adventures. And Outdoor Logic Solutions is marketing products like a ski and snowboard boot remover.
The growth stage competition was open to companies inside and outside the Central Oregon region. Contenders in this category typically had a proven concept, had already generated their initial revenues, and were ready to scale their companies quickly if provided investment capital. The award in this category had no limit and was based on how much money the winning company attracted from investors before the end of the event. Growth stage contenders were each given ten minutes of conference time to pitch their products and services, followed by a question and answer session.
The largest award went to Odysys, which attracted $205,000 in investment capital from BVC, LLC, a private investment fund set up each year for the conference. Odysys helps independent hotels lower costs by providing a simple online platform to manage their digital marketing efforts.
Vierra says Odysys is solving a big problem for hoteliers who would otherwise have to pay a big percentage of their income to traditional online travel agencies.
"It's so compelling from a price perspective," he says. "It's a massive value proposition."
A second award from the BVC, LLC fund was given to Perfect Company, which won $125,000. Perfect Company makes cooking scales that connect to mobile devices and apps that help consumers follow recipes to the letter.
Vierra says Perfect Company is revolutionizing cooking.
"The number of ways they can generate revenue is massive," he says. "They've solved a problem in the kitchen by shifting the way people cook."
This is the second year that the BVC, LLC fund has awarded investment prizes to more than one company. Last year, it gave $250,000 to Amplion Research, which markets a biomarker database, and $100,000 to Poachedjobs, a hiring platform for companies in high-turnover industries.
Even after the end of the two-day conference, the investment amounts may increase because growth stage contenders often receive side investment deals from other investors. Vierra says it may be one or two months before all the investments are known.
The BVC is one of a number of "angel conferences" linking investors with promising upstart companies. Upcoming offerings in the Pacific Northwest region include the Seattle Angel Conference this November and Willamette Angel Conference in Eugene next May. According to Entrepreneur.com, the term "angel" used to describe investors in Broadway shows but now refers to investors who put their own money into startup companies, as opposed to institutional venture capitalists, who invest other people's money.
Bend's angel conference is run by Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), a Bend-based nonprofit aiming to diversify the local economy and support middle class jobs. EDCO, which receives funds from private and public interests, entices outside employers to relocate or expand their operations here. After establishing a relationship, EDCO says it helps guide companies through the relocation process by providing information about the region, incentives, and site selection.
EDCO, founded in 1981, focuses on attracting "traded-sector employers" selling most of their goods or services outside Central Oregon. It says that by attracting businesses to the region, it also attracts wealth to local communities and helps build what it calls "a recession-proof employment base."
More than three-dozen prominent members of the local business community and public sector sit on EDCO's board of directors. Among them are Mid Oregon Credit Union President and CEO Bill Anderson, Deschutes County Commissioner Tony Debone, and OSU-Cascades Vice President Becky Johnson.
BVC THROUGH THE YEARS
The first BVC was held eleven years ago at the Tower Theater. The conference lasted just one day, and real money was not even in the offing. The prize went to the company attracting the largest amount of "bucks," a fixed pool of fake money distributed to audience members to spend as they saw fit. The winner of the inaugural event was renewable energy company PV Powered, which has since been acquired by Advanced Energy Industries of Fort Collins, Colorado.
The first annual conference to award actual money was held in 2006, when the medical device company Clear Catheter Solutions, now known as ClearFlow, secured $150,000 in investment capital. The same amount went to video software company Elemental Technologies Inc. in 2007, but the investment prize dropped slightly in 2008, when conference winner Jama Software took home $110,000.
In 2009, no investment prize money was awarded because of due diligence issues, but the following year, the prize to Manzama, which creates software for attorneys, reached $200,000. The biggest conference investment prize to date went to healthcare technology company Sonivate Medical, which won $265,000 in 2012.
Vierra says the BVC is the largest angel conference in the Pacific Northwest. Last year's conference contenders together raised more than a million dollars, including post-conference side investments.
EDCO began managing the BVC in 2010 because the conference brings together the elements of EDCO's mission, which are to "move, start, grow." Vierra says by that time the BVC had grown beyond the capabilities of an organization run entirely by volunteers. "The conference is a monster to manage," he says. "EDCO grabbed it because we have the resources and the interest. I don't think we realized how big it would get."
Other Conference Winners and
Winner of the Cascade Angels Fund Investment Award
Scratch-it, maker of a cloud platform that employs "reveal marketing," requiring end-users of online promotional content to uncover hidden messages.
Winner of the Seven Peaks Ventures Investment Award
Winner of the Mandala Firestarter Marketing Program Award
Perfect Company won marketing and branding services worth
Finalists in the Growth Stage
HoneyComb, maker of the AgDrone and other farm technology tools
NemaMetrix, offering low-cost pharmaceutical drug discovery technology