“It’s a fascinating mix,” says Michael McElwee, executive director of the Port of Hood River, adding that tech is one of four key economic clusters in the region alongside agriculture, food processing and recreation and tourism. “Our economy really reflects, I think, the kind of economy that many people would like to see the entire state have.”
Because of Insitu, the unmanned aerial vehicle industry has taken off in the Gorge and helped seed the region with a range of tech companies that either supply or sometimes compete with Insitu. It’s bound to stay that way for a while. In December, the company solidified its position in the Gorge when it announced it would be consolidating all of its production operations in Bingen; it plans to construct a 70,000-square-foot production facility and a 30,000-square-foot testing building.
Two former Insitu employees, Ross Hoag and Bill Vaglienti, left the company in 1999 and founded Hood River’s Cloud Cap Technology, which specializes in autopilot technology and camera systems for UAVs. Steve Olson also worked at Insitu before starting SightLine Applications in 2007; it focuses on video processing technology, again for UAVs. SightLine’s largest customer is Hood Technology, von Flotow’s firm that supplies Insitu with most of its launch catapults, camera turrets and other technology.
“There’s a ton of aerospace out here, so there’s lots of cross-pollination,” says Olson, whose company employs six and has offices in Hood River and Portland.
The Gorge has also proven popular with tech-minded entrepreneurs who come to the region not for its tech scene, but for its outdoor recreation and scenic beauty. Technology allows them to live in the area yet run companies reaching far beyond the Gorge.
Google, too, has found the Gorge to be a good fit for its data center in The Dalles. The company employs 70 full-time workers and about 80 different contractors at its two-building complex. A third building is in the works.
Site manager Dave Karlson says Google’s presence in the Gorge has helped fill out the tech sector. That has diversified the area’s economy, which in the past was weighted heavily toward the aluminum industry. When that sector got hit hard, so did the area.
“Now, we still all got hit by the recession, but there’s a lot of different pieces in tech and the engineering sector that help make it better than it used to be,” Karlson says.
Google is also involved with one of the bigger concerns facing the region’s tech sector: education. The company has invested in youth robotics, including making two of its community grants to the Gorge Tech Alliance so the alliance could purchase LEGO robotics kits. In 2010, there were 18 school robotics teams in the Gorge; last year, there were 73.
“Every tech player out there needs more engineers,” Karlson says. “Anything we can do to light that fire and get that magic started” will benefit everyone, he says.