By Jon Bell
If you ask Andy von Flotow, a little bit of California dust from 20 years ago may have had as much to do with the rise of technology-based businesses in the Columbia River Gorge as anything.
In the spring of 1992, von Flotow had enough of being an MIT aeronautics professor and enough of East Coast living. He wanted to move west, so he made a couple reconnaissance missions, one to California and one to Oregon. On his visit to the Santa Cruz area, von Flotow found it nice, but incredibly dusty. When he spent a weekend in Hood River, the sun was out, the blossoms in bloom and the mountain in full glory — the kind of conditions that would make just about anybody want to move to Hood River.
Von Flotow bought an old orchard and farmhouse that weekend and moved his family out soon thereafter.
“It was really the most arbitrary of decisions,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to move to the nicer place?”
Soon after von Flotow planted roots in Hood River, his friend and Stanford classmate, Tad McGeer, moved to the area and the two co-founded a small unmanned aerial vehicle company called Insitu across the river in Bingen, Wash.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Insitu’s UAVs have since logged hundreds of thousands of hours of military and civilian missions around the world. Boeing bought the company for a reported $400 million in 2008; revenue hit the same number in 2010. Today, more than 800 people work for Insitu, with hundreds more finding work in technology startups that sprung up directly from or around Insitu along the way.
And there’s Google, which built a data center complex in The Dalles in 2006, in part because of the region’s climate and cheap power, along with the scores of small companies and solo tech entrepreneurs who’ve set up virtual shop in the Gorge as a way to work while indulging in the region’s renowned quality of life. Arbitrary or not, it makes for a vibrant and expanding scene centered around technology.
“The tech sector in general has grown significantly, a lot of which has been fueled by the growth of Insitu,” says Jessica Metta, executive director of the Gorge Tech Alliance, an industry nonprofit based in The Dalles. “But lots of other companies are growing as well. There’s definitely a nexus out here.”