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Eugene-Area Start-Ups Find Ways To Retain The Brains

Karen Richards

Eugene and Springfield have long been losing skilled technical workers to bigger West Coast cities. Now, several start-ups are finding ways to retain the brains. As KLCC’s Karen Richards reports, one of the groups behind the shift hopes entrepreneurship will be seen as key to job creation and a strong local economy.

Shula Jaron and her cohorts had a problem. The four young entrepreneurs had the energy, talent and desire to start biotech companies, but they couldn't find the advice and guidance they needed in Eugene.

Jaron: "We realized that the resources that were here were hard to find, and that people weren't really connecting with each other."

So they did what entrepreneurs do, and found a solution: They rented an office and sublet spaces for people to gather and work on business ideas. They called it FertiLab Thinkubator, and within a year, they'd added programs, written a curriculum, and created a need for full-time staff:

Jaron: "It was starting to take on a life, so I ended up leaving my job to come and start running the organization."

Jaron says FertiLab recently moved into much larger digs across from the Hult Center. Just as their new space is prominent and encourages walk-ins, Jaron says part of the reason for the current energy around start-ups is simply visibility:

Jaron: "That awareness, it kind of breeds more entrepreneurs. Because if you know that you're not the only one, then it's much easier to take the next step."

New companies face other challenges, of course. For science-based ventures, it's often lab space, something FertiLab provided from its inception. Dr. Catherine McCormick is a Director at NemaMetrix. Her company makes a system that directs roundworms between two electrodes and makes measurements used to research basic human diseases. With FertiLab's help, it's grown to a nine-person company. She says it remains challenging to expand in Eugene: 

Dr. Catherine McCormick

McCormick: "Still we struggle with certain issues around getting enough space and having the lab setup that we need to have. So, we've definitely looked around in Portland and even in Washington. For now we're staying here."

McCormick says she's seen some businesses mature to a point where they need to move to a bigger market, and others relocate when they're acquired by larger companies.


Funding is another necessity for most start-ups. Tom Keating is CEO of Cognitopia, which provides software for people with autism and their caregivers. His business began in a FertiLab program. 


Keating: "I think there's a lot of discussion about access to capital, and that there's some perception that that might be easier in Silicon Valley or Seattle or Portland."


Keating says two multi-year federal grants totaling more than a million dollars have helped get his company going. Other groups have had success finding out-of-town venture capital or entering events like the Willamette Angle Conference, a yearly competition for investment and advice. 


Cognitopia and NemaMetrix remain loyal to the Eugene-area groups that helped them get started:


McCormick: "When you have your company maturing in a community, you really value that community."


Keating: "We fully intend to be here ourselves and to grow and interact with the local start-up community as much as we can."


Credit Karen Richards
Tom Keating of Cognitopia and his COO Matt Fanelli.

Shared work spaces are popping up everywhere in Eugene and Springfield. In addition to FertiLab, there's Mindworks, CodeChops, RAIN Eugene, and two new options downtown: Atlantis and Skybox. FertiLab's Jaron says she doesn't worry about there being too many:

Jaron: "I don't see us at saturation any time in the near future."


She says most of the offices have different focuses. She'd like to see them help more and more businesses launch locally:


Jaron: "My hope is that in five years, Eugene is such a thriving economy that when students come out of the university, they want to stay here because they can find a job here and they can begin their careers here and start their families here."  


According to RAIN Eugene, in just a year and a half, start-ups have added $800,000 in revenue and 47 jobs to the economy. Impressive numbers to build on, considering most new businesses don't make a profit in that short a time. In Eugene, a strong network of new and mature start-ups is eager to compound that success. 


Karen Richards joined KLCC as a volunteer reporter in 2012, and became a freelance reporter at the station in 2015. In addition to news reporting, she’s contributed to several feature series for the station, earning multiple awards for her reporting.
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