BY LINDA BAKER
In the past six months, the Software Association of Oregon has been trying to shed its stodgy image and become more relevant to the increasingly vibrant — and youthful — high-tech startup community. If last night’s 2012 Member Recognition Gala & Industry Awards is any indication, the organization is well on the way to winning a few hearts and minds.
Held in the exposed-beam warehouse space of the Left Bank Annex, the Gala affair was less an endurance test of ponderous speeches than a cocktail party with fun, smart and interesting people. Although the Gala was billed as a first annual event, a few attendees told me they had attended some iteration of the event in previous years. “But it wasn’t like this. It wasn’t as good.”
At worst, the gala was a victim of its own success. With only a smattering of tables, the standup crowd made such a din that it was virtually impossible to hear the few speeches that did mark the occasion, leaving SAO president Skip Newberry looking a bit like a mime during his opening address and compelling Mohan Nair, Chief Innovation Officer at Cambia Health Solutions, to cut his keynote short by 15 minutes and instead deliver what he claimed was an impromptu rendition of "When I Fall in Love" with the Cleveland High School Jazz Band.
I might also suggest that SAO rethink a few of their award categories, namely, the “Most Awards in a Year Award,” and the “Company Producing the Biggest Impact in the Shortest Period of Time Award.”
Here are a few of the guests with whom I mixed and mingled:
• Michael Gray, chief technology officer for GlobeSherpa, a “mobile ticketing” startup, with an app for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry that lets users purchase and use transit tickets — bus, light rail, trains, waterway — with a click of the button. A member of the Portland Seed Fund's second class of start ups, GlobeSherpa aims to bring "sanity to mobility” in a fractured U.S. transit market, said Gray. The company expects to perform a beta test of the app in June in four yet-to-be named cities. Here’s hoping one of them is Portland, where fumbling for change on TriMet feels so 20th century.
• Aimee Fahey, recruiter for Puppet Labs, who is on a mission to fill 15 new positions, from systems administrators to software developers. The company, which had 40 employees last year, will have 100 when the hiring spree is over. “We’re big enough that we provide a career path but still have the startup feel,” Fahey said.
• Zachary Hudson, an 18-year-old Amity High School senior and Techstart Student Technologist of the Year, who told me about his senior project: a 16-inch quadcopter flying robot that uses four propellers controlled independently by a microprocessor and gyro to stabilize and fly. "We've demonstrated proof of concept," Hudson said, handing me his business card.
Hudson might be considered part of an SAO gala education theme, if one could say there was a theme. After initially failing to make his voice heard, Newberry did succeed in silencing the crowd so he could discuss the “importance of education.” Noting that his own kids are going to be competing for jobs with kids all over the country, as well as in China and India, Newberry called on guests to invest time and money in local schools and community programs. “Now is the time," he said.
Set against a backdrop of never-ending budget cuts in Portland public schools, Newberry’s call to arms was a welcome if somber contribution to an otherwise sparkling upbeat celebration of the region’s tech community.
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.