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|Articles - July 2011|
|Wednesday, June 22, 2011|
Page 3 of 8The spirit of invention, as applied to video software, gliders and beer
Coffey moved to Bend 11 years ago and fell in love with the fly-fishing and the community feel. After his job fell through, he decided to try something entrepreneurial. He’s 37 years old, and StreamIt is his fifth company. He’s hoping to grow it to 50 employees by the end of 2012. “With my other companies the goal was to sell them,” he says. “This time we’re going to build it here in Bend.”
The goal of StreamIt is to help people and institutions distribute videos online and get paid for them. There is a huge market for training and educational business videos, and for the most part they are still sold as DVDs. “DVDs are dying,” he says. “Why in the world would I manufacture a DVD? I get global distribution immediately online. And I get analytics.”
In Coffey’s view, small technology companies like his are the obvious sweet spot for Bend. “We’ve done light manufacturing,” he says. “Light manufacturing killed us. It’s time to get serious about taking risks on startups.”
Coffey didn’t think he was taking a personal risk when he bought a home in 2006. Today he is $250,000 under water. He’s not happy about it, but he points out that in many ways Bend’s crash has been good for entrepreneurs. Rent is cheap and the pool of people hungry for work is large. He can pay his software developers $60,000 to $80,000 as compared to the $100,000 to $120,000 they would earn in the Bay Area. He just has to convince them to live in Bend and kayak instead of sitting in California traffic.
Bend may be a community of choice for Coffey and his fellow serial entrepreneurs, but it is also a town with strong blue-collar roots. You see that when you drive east from the shops and restaurants of the Old Mill District over to the city’s more modest east side of older neighborhoods, box stores and industrial parks. Coffey is correct about the travails of light manufacturing in Bend, but at the same time it is difficult and a little sad to imagine a Bend where workers don’t build things for the physical world, like airplanes.
Out at the airport, it takes me a while to figure out where Windward Performance is located. I finally locate some workers in grimy clothes, building things by hand in a noisy hangar. They direct me to general manager Tim Gorbold. He tells me he joined the company two years ago; since then it’s grown from six people to 24. Among the recent hires are a 19-year-old woman, an 88-year-old machinist and recent graduates from Lehigh and Purdue universities. Asked what is enabling the company to expand, Gorbold says, “Greg is a brilliant aerodynamicist.”
Windward’s owner, Greg Cole, came to Bend in 1995 to work with Lanceair. Cole also served as chief engineer for Columbia Aircraft, which built highly regarded planes in Bend but ran into cash-flow problems and was bought out of bankruptcy by Cessna. Cessna told Oregon Business it had no plans to leave Bend a year before doing exactly that, shifting jobs to Mexico. Another major employer, Epic Aircraft, was sold out of bankruptcy in 2010 and is struggling to revive operations.
When Cole talks about the lost jobs at the airport he grits his teeth and shakes his head. Then he moves to show me what he’s working on in his seven-hangar operation: a glider designed to soar to a record-breaking 90,000 feet (close to completion), an electric plane with a tilt-wing design to combine the lift of a helicopter with the thrust of a small plane (concept stage), aerodynamic wind turbines that produce more electricity by bouncing around like beach kites, a super-bad glider capable of withstanding 10Gs — more torque than what fighter pilots absorb.
“We can’t be crude,” Cole says. “We have to be exceedingly elegant, exceedingly low-drag, exceedingly light and strong.”
The Windward operation does not resemble a factory production line so much as a sprawling innovation lab. Employees are making carbon fiber molds by hand. Cole walks through the facility briskly, riffing on lift-to-drag ratios, pressurized breathing machines, space exploration and the challenge of finding a fuel source anywhere near as efficient as petroleum. It is exhausting and delightful to try to keep pace with his ideas.
Outside of the hangars in the midday light, Cole gestures to the nearby building that Cessna abandoned. “I worked in that building when it first opened,” he says. “I’d like to get back in there, building airplanes.”
The company will need to grow for that to happen, and it is. Windward and Cole are getting a lot of publicity for their Perlan glider, and their other projects offer tantalizing glimpses of the future. “We’d like to be a 120-person company,” says Cole. “We’re headed in that direction.”
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