A look back, and ahead, at Oregon Innovators
written by James Sinks
In the yellowed pages of history, the promise of Oregon Innovators bade explorers to plunge headlong into the rugged—and often damp— frontier. It was no place for fear of the unknown. at same unforgiving ethos goes for the Oregon trailblazers of the business sort.
“ The cowards never started and the weak died along the way,” said Nike co-founder Phil Knight, in his bestselling memoir, Shoe Dog. The Oregon economy of today has been shaped by big thinkers, like Knight and others, whose ideas and dogged tenacity created opportunities and jobs by the thousands, spawned spinoffs, saved lives and—to help all of us celebrate more effectively—made vineyards more productive. Of course, some Oregon inventions are just plain fun, and tasty. The beanbag Hacky Sack that helped occupy the time of countless college students before dating apps? Created in 1972 in Oregon City. And marionberries were cobbled together (genetically) by the fertile minds of cross- breeders at Oregon State University in the 1940s. Sure, when it comes to the world of business innovation, Oregon lives in the shadow of its neighboring states. But don’t let that fool you, says Eric Rosenfeld, co-founder of the Oregon Venture Fund, which connects investment capital with promising tinkerers. “Oregonians have our place on the cutting edge. We don’t have the same resources that feed innovation like major research universities that fuel commercialization, but that hasn’t stopped some pretty interesting ideas from starting here.”
Oregon’s innovators benefit from the tailwind created by pioneers who forged landmark niche industries, such as Tektronix, he said. Simultaneously, many in-state entrepreneurs are thinking bigger than products and services to do something meaningful. “ The next generation of ideas is pretty exciting,” Rosenfeld said. You’ll find innovation from border to border, in experimental farm plots and kitchens, in the rugged backcountry of Eastern Oregon, in university classrooms, and in signature research centers like the Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute (OTRADI), a bioscience incubator perched on the Willamette River in Portland. And who knows? Maybe the next trailblazing Oregon breakthrough is taking shape in your garage.
In the late 1950s, Dr. Albert Starr was a young cardiovascular surgeon and a New York transplant who’d been lured to Oregon to run the cardiac unit at University of Oregon Medical School, now OHSU. The idea of salmon fishing also helped bring him west. Shortly after he arrived, he met Lowell Edwards, who’d previously invented a hydraulic de-barker for logs. Edwards initially wanted to build an artificial hydraulic heart at his workshop in Sandy. Instead, the two collaborated on a prosthetic replacement heart valve, which came to be known as the Starr-Edwards valve. Starr performed the first successful implant in 1960 on a then-52-year-old truck driver. Initially given just months, the patient lived healthily for more than a decade—with his chest making the telltale click of the working valve—until falling to his death from a ladder. “Oregon,” Starr said, “is a great place to be a pioneer. (The valve) was the biggest career move of my life because it put me into a new world of innovation in the early stages of cardiac surgery, when the field was just beginning.” Before the Starr-Edwards valve, no patient lived longer than three months after valve-replacement attempts. Afterward, people lived decades. The valve is part of the collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and on the Smithsonian website admirers boast about the longevity of recipients—one of them for fifty-one years. Starr, who has worked at several Portland area health centers and is a partner in a clinic, is now back at OHSU. And he’s still innovating. “I’m now working on an artificial heart,” he said.
NEXT BIG THING?
Fueled by $1 billion in fundraising, the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU will assemble at least 250 experts, led by director Dr. Brian Druker, to attempt to nd a cure. The $160 million facility is being built in Portland’s south waterfront district.
Inspiration struck when Joseph Cox was cutting firewood in 1946. Rather, it gnawed. He couldn’t help but notice that a timber beetle larva in a nearby tree trunk was having a much easier time going through the wood than he was. He disappeared into his basement shop and, a year later, debuted a steel saw chain based on the beetle jaws—and revolutionized wood cutting nationwide. The name? Oregon Chipper Chains, which grew into today’s Blount International, whose workforce includes 900 in Milwaukie and sells product lines in the forestry, construction and agricultural sectors.
“I spent several months looking for nature’s answer to the problem,” Cox said, in a biography on the company website. “I found it in the larva of the timber beetle.” The design of that original chain is still widely used today, the company says, and represents one of the biggest influences in the history of timber harvesting.
NEXT BIG THING?
The DR Johnson sawmill in Riddle in Southern Oregon is the nation’s first to earn certification to fabricate cross-laminated timber panels, a sturdy building material made of perpendicular and glued beams rated highly enough for building construction— giving the state’s timber industry a foothold in mid-rise and potentially high-rise construction.
Travel to beaches around the world, and long sandy stretches are off limits. Yet you won’t see a “no trespassing” sign on the entire length of Oregon’s 362-mile coastline. Whom to thank? Governor Oswald West, and later, Governor Tom McCall. More than a century ago, West—who served from 1911 to 1915—had an audacious idea that the beach should be a highway which would then belong to the public in perpetuity. “No selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people,” he said. In those days, Oregon’s beaches were not as important to tourism as they were for commerce: In some places, the beaches were, in fact, the roads. In 1967, McCall led the effort to expand the Beach Bill by including sand up to the vegetation line.
The Oregon Coast annually attracts more than 17 million visitors and their wallets—adding up to some $1.9 billion in economic activity. “ The efforts of visionary Oregonians like Governor Oswald West declaring the Oregon Coast a highway and Governor Tom McCall’s effort to pass the Oregon Beach Bill, have forever preserved an Oregon icon in true Oregon fashion,” said Todd Davidson, executive director of Travel Oregon.
NEXT BIG THING?
Getting away from it all is harder than it used to be. As Oregon continues to attract waves of people, quiet solitude can be a rarity. That’s giving rise to new opportunities for establishments in remote destinations—like the Minam River Lodge, accessed by hiking trail or plane (no road) in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeast Oregon.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grow wine grapes, but for Scott Henry of Umpqua, it sure didn’t hurt. An aerospace engineer who was trying to nurture vineyards at his family’s homestead north of Roseburg, Henry wanted to get more sunlight to his grapes after a wet season in 1982. So he bent some of his vines in a new direction: Rather than allowing shoots to grow normally, he forced half of them downward and sideways. It worked. While more time-consuming, the new method yielded more fruit with less crowding and better quality. And in a competitive business like wine growing, more production per acre matters. The innovation, known as the Scott Henry Trellis, grew in popularity and is now used in similar winegrowing regions worldwide. You’re still likely to nd Henry, now 81, among the grapes at Henry Estate Winery when he isn’t consulting for other vineyards. Henry didn’t get a patent for his system. That’s just not his style, said Donna Reynolds, the winery’s marketing manager. “He believes in helping everybody make great wine, because that is making our world happier,” she said.
NEXT BIG THING?
A good wine can help cleanse your palate. Soon, bad wine could help clean your kitchen sink. Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered a potential new market for white wine that doesn’t make the cut for serving: A spray to fight microbes and food-borne disease.
Fred G. Meyer, who started out delivering coffee to timber camps, changed the way Oregonians shop when he introduced the idea of convenient one-stop shopping. His insight was profitable in an era when more people were climbing into cars. Convenient and sizeable Fred Meyer stores with off-street parking multiplied across the state and the West. After the company was sold to a private equity firm in 1981, it grew to become the nation’s fifth largest food and drug store operator, with almost 100 stores under different brands across the western U.S.
THE NEXT BIG THING?
The rise of destination bargain retailers pinched neighborhood corner stores. But in Lisa Sedlar’s vision—and her business plan— convenience stores are poised for a comeback. As more Oregonians want to drive less and eat healthier, Sedlar’s Green Zebra Grocery is breathing new life into the neighborhood store model, with a healthy twist: fresh, organic food. She calls it a hybrid of Whole Foods and 7-Eleven. The company, which has three Portland locations, is looking to expand to 100 stores across the western U.S. A former CEO of New Seasons Market, she dreamed for years of making healthy food sales work in a smaller footprint. She says the name Green Zebra came from a tomato variety that grows well in the Northwest—also the goal for the niche markets.
When researchers at Portland State University created a celestial metaphor to help visualize the evolution of Oregon’s high-tech ecosystem, it put Tektronix at the center of the universe. Shortly after the company was founded in 1946, Howard Vollum, one of four original partners, came up with an advanced oscilloscope to measure the strength and patterns of high-speed electric waves. The breakthrough put Oregon on the high-tech map and catapulted the company to become the world’s top manufacturer of specialized measurement instruments, according to the Oregon Historical Society. The company attracted keen high-tech minds and it also trained workers via its education program, dubbed the “University of Tektronix.” Innovations and talent spun off into startups, making Tektronix the first sapling in what would become Oregon’s Silicon Forest. The companies it seeded included Planar Systems, TriQuint Semiconductors, PixelWorks and Mentor Graphics. Tektronix also helped lure Intel to Oregon in the 1970s. Tektronix’ market dominance and workforce have fallen since its heyday. But you can’t understate its importance, said Rosenfeld of the Oregon Venture Fund. “You can see the signature DNA of Tektronix in how it shaped the entire region’s tech economy,” he said. “All of the digital display and imaging companies we have here may not have started here if not for them.”
THE NEXT BIG THING?
A world away from the Silicon Forest, a major investment in Lakeview could tap the actual forest for jobs. Set to break ground this year, the Red Rock Biofuels project proposes to convert tons of woody biomass into renewable jet fuel, with the U.S. Navy as one of the buyers.
AND, OF COURSE, NIKE
It was the waffle iron that could. The search for a better and lighter running shoe for sprinters at the University of Oregon took legendary coach Bill Bowerman to the kitchen, where he found the perfect tool to melt the rubber soles of shoes: A waffle iron. The resulting shoes—the Waffle Trainer— were among the early products at the edgling company he formed with one of his middle-distance runners, Phil Knight. “A shoe must be three things,” he is quoted as saying on the company’s website. “It must be light, comfortable, and it’s got to go the distance
Launched in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports and first selling imported shoes, the company adopted its moniker of Nike Inc. in the 1970s—named after the Greek goddess of victory. With Knight at the helm, Nike became the world’s leading athletic footwear maker and supplier, living up to the company name. And the waffle iron? Rescued from a garbage pile, it now lives in a protective case at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton.
THE NEXT BIG THING?
When it comes to innovation, it’s a safe bet that Nike will just do it. Oregon’s cluster of athletic apparel companies is churning out patents, and Nike is leading the charge. According to Investor’s Business Daily, Nike was granted almost 500 patents in 2015 alone and ended the year with 5,060 issued patents— more than Ford, Pfizer and Lockheed Martin.