The Bend Venture Conference happened for the 15th year in a row. To be sure, at this point the event happens – it’s a thing – and yet I find myself always somewhat amazed that so many investors, entrepreneurs, and startup supporters come to Bend, millions of dollars are doled out to promising companies, and respected keynote speakers have inspiring conversations on stage.
The founder of Talkoot expressed a similar sentiment upon winning more than a $1 million in investment Friday. “I didn’t know this even existed,” Brian Hennessy said, referring to Bend’s startup and venture community and thanking the crowd and people that make BVC happen.
Because I’m a recovering lit minor, I always like to find an overall theme in things I write about. This year after talking to numerous people about BVC, the prevailing notion was one of everything moving “upstream,” as one investor described it. The early stage seems less early and increasingly polished. The growth stage seems mature and ready for more dollars. Even the unConference pitches earlier in the week were just all around strong. Basically: it’s no one’s first rodeo. Perhaps after 15 years of BVC, this is expected. However, especially when it comes to Central Oregon founders and pitches, this overall elevation also speaks to the hard work that ecosystem players have been doing to build a larger, stronger entrepreneurial pool.
More on that in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the winners, the keynote, Seven Peaks endowing a CS Scholar at OSU Cascades, and more. It’s a good old-fashioned recap. Here we go:
The early stage
This is the first year that the early stage included companies from outside of Bend. The prizes included a $2,500 cash award from PrideStaff and $20,000 investment from Portland Seed Fund. As mentioned, the pitches were impressive, and also exceptionally varied.
Plover, a Portland-based startup that makes a carwash machine that uses only steam and water and no chemicals, won the stage, earning the five-figure Portland Seed Fund investment. LuDela, whose founder recently moved to Bend, won the audience vote and $2,500 cash prize. That company makes remote-control, real-flame candles. Literally every time founder Jamie Bianchini turns on one of his candles, you can hear the crowd say “whoooooaaaaa.” Because it’s a remote-control, real-fire candle.
The impact track
Now in its third year, the social impact track kicked off the BVC on Thursday afternoon. The four companies tackled everything from reducing carbon dioxide to creating more affordable housing to finding new sources of fresh water.
The OCO Corporation, out of Vida, Ore., won the $100,000 investment. The company converts carbon dioxide generated by industrial and fossil fuel burning power plants into a value-added platform chemical, formic acid.
The growth track
The BVC hands out lots of big checks and this year was no exception. Seven companies overall received some sort of cash or investment. But there was a clear winner and that was Talkoot. Brian, the founder who pitched, has created cloud-based software that helps brands create and organize high-volumes of product copy. Several people noted that he did a fantastic job of illustrating the problem: giant brands like Adidas or Old Navy have hundreds of thousands of product descriptions that they create and manage and there’s no good way for doing so. Brian also seems like the right person to solve this, hailing from the industry and previously running a content agency that creates product copy for companies that are now Talkoot clients.
So the audience got it. Investors did too, because Talkoot won the following:
- $135,000 from the BVC Fund as the Growth Stage winner.
- $500,000 investment from Seven Peaks Ventures.
- $200,000 from Cascade Angels.
- $300,000 Elevate Capital.
It was definitely a big check party for the Hood River-based startup. The other growth stage awards included:
- $100,000 to CommLoan, a commercial real estate finance marketplace company, from the BVC Fund as the runner-up in the growth stage competition.
- $250,000 from Seven Peaks Ventures to Caligoo, a mobile journey software platform providing predictive and personalized experiences that sense, learn, reason, and react in real-time to target customers and reach applications goals. The founder of this startup recently moved to Bend.
- $200,000 from Cascade Angels Fund to Stabilitas, an AI engine designed for security teams that allows them to do the work of 1,000 human analysts in real-time.
Friday’s keynote: Tech is a Brotopia
Friday’s keynote featured Emily Chang, the author of Brotopia, and host of Bloomberg Technology, interviewed by Corey Schmid, a partner at Seven Peaks Ventures. Corey asked great questions and the resulting conversation was illuminating, wide-reaching and perhaps, if you’re a woman or just a general human who has been paying attention to any news for the past year, infuriating. Emily offered her well-reported take on the evolution of the brotopia in Silicon Valley and why tech jobs, tech founders and tech investors remain primarily men.
“If we can build self-driving cars, send rockets to the moon and connect the world, we can hire more women and pay them fairly,” Emily noted early in the talk. And you do wonder, why is it so hard? Yet, the ensuing conversation between Emily and Corey revealed how deeply engrained the gender disparity is in the industry.
Emily recalled prominent tech founders who lamented not having any women on their founding teams and the notion of some LPs in VC funds that investing in women and making money are somehow mutually exclusive. Turns out, they’re not. Emily said, and in fact research shows, that founding teams that include women are more profitable. She dug into the trouble with the concept of “meritocracy” and how it allows men in tech to sidestep the acknowledgement of their own privilege to focus, instead, on why they’re so deserving of their success.
She had some heartening reports—tech companies committed to hiring women into leadership positions, the founding of All Raise, a collaborative effort by women in VC to address gender disparity in the VC world, and the success reported by companies who do prioritize diversity. One audience member asked whether it would take an entire generation to get the industry to a place of equality. Emily noted that’s she optimistic it could be sooner.
I certainly hope so. Even when it seems like everyone is discussing gender inequality and in agreement that it should be remedied, the progress is exhaustingly slow. Consider that the five growth stage presenters immediately following Emily’s presentation were all men (Talkoot does have a woman cofounder who wasn’t on stage). Most of their decks featured all-male or nearly all-male leadership teams. I think I counted the photos/names of three or four women in total featured in the growth stage slides. It’s important to note that EDCO, the organization that puts on the BVC, does a phenomenal job of prioritizing diverse emcees, panelists, and keynotes for the conference, and doesn’t select the finalists.
At the Elevate Inclusion Summit in Portland a few weeks ago, one woman in VC noted that even as she pays attention to every female founder who asks for her time, she still sees exponentially more male founders. So there’s a pipeline problem. The pool of female founders needs to be larger to start so that more filter up to the VC level. There’s an entire brotopia to dismantle and rebuild. It’s a complicated, long-standing, multi-layered issue that won’t be solved overnight. And even so, as Emily pointed out, we can send rockets to the moon. Rockets to the moon.
The big announcement from OSU and Seven Peaks Ventures
Finally, there was an exciting announcement to round out the BVC and put Central Oregon on a faster path to building our pipeline of tech talent. Dino Vendetti, founder of Seven Peaks, announced that the firm’s partners have established and funded the Oregon State Cascades Faculty Scholar in Computer Science. The first recipient is Yong Bakos, a CS instructor there, and awesome supporter of Bend’s tech community, CS students and student entrepreneurs, and startups all around.
The Bulletin notes that the gift supports “classroom activities, rather than the faculty member’s salary,” and that Yong will use “the money is to pay stipends to students working on software projects for community organizations.”
A heartfelt thanks to Seven Peaks for their support of the CS program, and a hearty congratulations to Yong, who has been working so hard since he arrived to build a CS program here in Bend. Your work is appreciated, noticed and now more funded 🙂
The 15th Annual Bend Venture Conference is a wrap. Congratulations to all who pitched and participated. There was likely a lot of celebrating last night. And then – it’s back to work.