Portland State University’s School of Business Administration publicly launched its new Social Innovation Incubator last week, around the time that we were considering a poll on what stifles entrepreneurship in Oregon. The business mood is a little sour these days with the tax measures battle, the enduring downturn, seemingly endless layoffs, and Main Streets pockmarked with vacancies. It has some wondering whether Oregon is a good place to do business.
In the goofy-but-telling category, last Friday the chief of the state’s economic development agency fired back at Chicago’s mayor, who had invited any unhappy Oregon businesses to come to the Windy City if they were steamed that the tax measures passed. And then Beaverton's mayor piled on in a letter published Sunday in the Chicago Sun-Times. It's an economic slapfest that tells you something about how desperate states are for jobs and growth.
Outside the heat of all this, PSU's business school, widely regarded as a leader in social and environmental stewardship, was steadily and quietly building its incubator, which is designed to help established and startup business get to their triple bottom line, or “generate social, environmental and economic value.”
The incubator is under the wing of PSU’s Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability and PSU’s Entrepreneurship Center, which is expected to launch later this year. Cindy Cooper, the director of the incubator, said that the idea for the incubator arose in part because “there was a groundswell in the Portland community.”
“Lots of people were coming to PSU for help” Cooper says. “In Portland, Oregon and the Northwest, we have a [sustainability] grassroots movement that we haven’t even scratched the surface of. We don’t know how big it is. More and more people are interested in what they are doing having personal meaning.”
The services are free for startups and established companies pay a fee based on their size. Candidates can be nonprofit or for-profit as long as they are trying to solve an environmental or social problem.
Charter members Sustainable Harvest, a sustainable coffee importer, and Preciva, a medical startup, were signed on at the end of last year. “Sustainable Harvest came to me to talk about their projects. They wanted to have some external perspective. They are very thoughtful and analytical about what they do,” Cooper says. Preciva was in the PSU Business Accelerator so Cooper and company already knew about them. Cooper has worked with PSU for about two-and-a-half years and previously managed a Bay Area social entrepreneurship incubator. She also teaches social innovation and entrepreneurship in the graduate programs of PSU’s business school.
“It’s a great time for us to be looking at innovation as a source of job creation,” Cooper says. “When we can bring new energy around spurring business then we have a better chance of jump-starting the economy.”
Cooper hopes that in two years the work of the incubator will reach 15 to 20 companies and also created “a strong web of support for one another.”
What an intelligent and sane idea, unlike the verbal fisticuffs with Chicago’s mayor that don’t really get us anywhere. The real punch is in the concrete work of programs like PSU’s that find ways to meaningfully support businesses and help the ever-growing desire to create a sustainable future.
Robin Doussard is Editor of Oregon Business.