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Signs of life?

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Ben Jacklet
Tuesday, June 09, 2009

One of our super-talented interns is leaving us, and we hate to see her go, but I have to say I like the circumstances. She was on her second internship with us. The first time she left us because she was hired by a promising young company. Then she came back, after getting her hours drastically reduced at her new job amid fears the business would have to shut down entirely.

Turns out her company isn't going under. They're boosting her hours and expanding her responsibilities to keep up with new orders. And they aren't the only ones climbing out of the abyss. Banks are paying back their TARP loans, markets are rebounding powerfully, the clean tech sector is taking off and even Oregon's Index of Economic Indicators is showing signs of life, finally. Clean energy jobs grew by 50 percent in Oregon from 1998 to 2007. This doesn't counter the losses in timber and manufacturing, but it helps. My last six face-to-face interviews have been with two CEOs, an Intel Fellow, a consumer watchdog, and a federally appointed administrator, and not one of them mentioned the economy in ominous terms. That wouldn't have been the case a few months ago; what else was there to talk about then?

A year ago I was feeling more pessimistic than your average bear; now I've got the opposite feeling. The change might have something to do with my quest to find companies that plan to add jobs rather than subtract them over the coming year and beyond. Recent nominees include Bend's PV Powered, which scored another round of financing this week, Portland's Stalk Market, which may have solved the puzzle of the biodegradable coffee cup lid (hello? Starbucks?), the fast-growing flash video producer AngelVision and Chinese battery and car company BYD.

What does a Chinese battery and car company have to do with jobs in Oregon? Time will tell, but here are a few hints: 1. The one non-Chinese member of BYD's board works for Warren Buffett 2. That same guy also oversees Oregon's second largest utility. 3. That utility (every utility) needs a better way to store power when the wind blows, and to charge electric cars, possibly using solar power. 4. BYD is considering expanding into Oregon. 5. BYD's new electric car is hitting the Chinese market later this year, with a range of 250 miles. The company is a global leader in electric cars, solar power and energy storage.

All right, so the previous paragraph was pure speculation. But you have to admit it's kind of cool to consider a future where you carry stored electricity around with you, in your car battery, maybe recharge it in a parking lot with help from the sun. If that scenario sounds far-fetched, hey, so did the notion of easily editing video, playing music and building Powerpoint presentations on a $400 laptop. The guy who invented USB reminded me of this the other day. He works in Oregon, and his team has ambitious plans.

Are we seeing signs of life? Or am I drinking the Kool-Aid?

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