The Friday Night Lights of Invention Competitions

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At City Summit 2018, 50 cities committed to new initiatives to support their innovation economies. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments in order to showcase successes, identify best practices and connect peer cities who can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work:

“What can you build with $2,500 in 90 days?” This is the challenge Juan Barraza, director of student innovation at Portland State University, poses to students across Oregon every year. PSU’s Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge attracts university students from all disciplines and provides them with resources to bring a product from idea to reality.

In 2018, PSU made a commitment through NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program to expand the reach of the Invent Oregon program to ensure that any student could become the state’s next big inventor. At its inception in 2016, the competition included university students from five schools. Last June, teams from 17 colleges and universities — including community colleges, and spanning from big cities and rural towns — presented their patent-ready prototypes at the competition’s final event.

A resurgence of innovation in Oregon’s urban centers

Invent Oregon’s rising profile is emblematic of the state’s resurgent innovation economy. As in most states, the rate of small business formation in Oregon declined over the last few decades on the heels of widening inequality and the Great Recession. The share of total businesses that are startups fell by roughly half since 1990, and bank lending to small enterprises is at historic lows.

Since 2014, however, access to capital for early stage companies in Oregon has steadily improved, and the average number of jobs created by startups in their first year has increased by 25 percent. The number of business accelerators and incubators is also on the rise. There were 38 in 2014. As of 2016, there were 62.

Portland, in particular, is home to a vibrant startup scene. Anchored by innovation assets like Nike and Intel, catalyzed by a growing cadre of diverse and community-oriented entrepreneurs, and benefitting from universities teaching new approaches to entrepreneurship, Portland is rising in the national ranks of cities favorable to startup formation. Of the state’s 62 accelerators and incubators, 60 percent of them are concentrated in the Portland metropolitan area.

A competition that spreads the wealth

While Oregon’s urban centers have experienced high rates of economic growth, rural entrepreneurs often feel disconnected from resources that support invention and new business formation. “Someone who lives in rural Oregon has to travel 10-15 miles to talk to a mentor,” laments Barraza. “Finding someone with knowledge in biotech or AI engineering is really only possible in metro areas.”

Barraza wanted to change that, leading to his commitment to broaden Invent Oregon’s reach. By expanding the competition to more colleges and universities, PSU and its collaborators hoped to connect rural entrepreneurs with the funding, mentorship and education they would need to form successful businesses. “The reality is that the entrepreneurial spirit is widely present all over the state,” Barraza says. “What is not present is the opportunity.”

That’s why Barraza intentionally signals that Invent Oregon is a statewide challenge, not merely an urban one. In addition to including schools outside metropolitan areas, the competition requires its mentors to meet with students — wherever they are — once a week. Rural students gain access to the same mentors, whether in-person or via video call, that metro area students have easy access to.

To enhance a statewide culture of entrepreneurship, the location of the event’s final stage, where 21 teams recently competed for over $30,000 in grants and prizes, is also rotated each year between Portland and a rural town. According to Barraza, it’s often in the rural towns where a “Friday Night Lights” atmosphere comes to life. He describes how Klamath Falls, the finals host two years ago, welcomed Invent Oregon teams with billboards, signs in shopfronts, and through welcome events with city and county officials.

Inspiring a generation of inventors

After several months of prototypes, pitches and meetings with mentors, a panel of more than 30 judges select winners for each of the competition’s awards. This year, a team of three women from Oregon Tech in Klamath Falls, a city of 20,000 that is about five hours south of Portland, took home the top prize for developing a system for recycling waste plastic into crude oil.

While the numbers Barraza posts are impressive, it’s the stories he tells about young inventors that best capture the possibilities of the program. There’s the all-Latino high school team from Salem that begged Barraza to make an exception to allow them to compete. They made it to the final round. Barraza describes how one of the students approached him afterwards and said he knew he could go to college now because of the support he received through the competition.

Then there’s Blake Turner, a student from rural Oregon who invented a kit for converting gas-powered engines to run on hydrogen. He struggled to pitch his invention the first year but continued working on it and took home 2nd place the year after. Today, he continues to pitch his concept to investors.

“When I first met Blake he could barely maintain eye contact,” Barraza says. “Now he has so much confidence. He’ll tell you, ‘I’m an inventor.’ He didn’t know these opportunities existed before.”

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About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.