Since 2017 the Invent Oregon competition has bridged Oregon’s science, business and education sectors — and organizers aim to make a bigger impact on students across the state.
Ever since they were little, Riley and Bretten Farrell knew they wanted to go into business together. The twins say they were always concocting “little schemes” to make pocket money. One of their most profitable hustles was selling cotton candy outside school football games in their hometown of Chico, California.
“From day one, we always knew we wanted to stick together because we’re best friends, we share a lot of interests, and we kind of saw each other in our life path together,” Riley tells Oregon Business.
The brothers also ran track, and developed a healthy appreciation for school spirit and sporting events. When it came time to choose a college, the University of Oregon checked all the boxes: It had a great business program, plenty of school pride — and was situated in TrackTown USA.
This summer the Farrell brothers represented their school off the field at Invent Oregon, a statewide product-prototyping competition for college students. The contest, which began in 2017, gives selected student teams from Oregon colleges $2,500 and 90 days, to develop and pitch an invention to a panel of business leaders. Teams are chosen through smaller competitions within the schools and receive business classes, mentorship opportunities, and access to the competition’s network of community resources to help develop their product and pitch, competing for $30,000 in total prize money.
A joint venture between Portland State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, the Lemelson Foundation, Business Oregon, the Oregon Community Foundation and six other organizations, the competition is designed to create an entrepreneurial landscape among college students and develop the inventions necessary to meet future challenges as they emerge.
Denver Backus, founder of Backus Agnlabs vertical gardens, at Invent Oregon at Rogue Community College. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
More than a conventional science fair, Invent Oregon has already produced startups founded by prize-winning participants. Past competitors have filed a total of 10 patents since Invent Oregon’s inception said Juan Barraza at the 2022 finals at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, and who directs Portland State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and acts as the organizer of Invent Oregon. But in the wake of COVID-19 and the country’s ongoing shortage of skilled workers, Barraza says Invent Oregon now has a larger responsibility to develop Oregon’s entrepreneurial landscape.
Inventor Sarah Almuhanna grows bee habitats from fungus. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
In addition to creating an environment where students develop business ideas, the competition has begun disseminating its resources to more students statewide. Organizers are also working to make Oregon community college graduates more lucrative hires for tech companies. By helping create startups, connecting students to the business community and improving Oregon’s talent pipeline, Barraza says Invent Oregon has begun to play a bigger role in making Oregon’s economy more resilient and more innovative.
Jensen Barnes, founder of LoveHate Athletica and winner of Invent OR 2022. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
In its five years of operation, Invent Oregon has already proven it can help launch companies. Indoor garden operator Nexgarden, which won Invent Oregon in 2017, now has an operation in the basement of Portland’s Nines Hotel, growing fresh produce for diners. Produce Mate, an antimicrobial mat that slows the decaying process of fruits and vegetables, won the competition in 2018 and is now in the middle of a second round of fundraising. SafeStart, a breathalyzer keychain that won the competition last year, officially has a patent.
“Our education system is designed to create workers. It is not designed to create business owners, problem solvers and entrepreneurs because it came out of the industrial revolution and the need for mass education,” says Ruth Swain, Invent Oregon’s community college liaison and director of Rogue Community College’s Small Business Development Center.
“Students end up making a beeline for jobs,” Swain adds. “The beauty of Invent Oregon is it kind of interrupts that process and says, ‘Hey, what if you solved a problem? What if you opened a business? What if you created an innovative product?’ It gets students into a whole new world of possibilities.”
Inventors Dao Nguyen and Chrys Chan, founders of Klamath Angel Mobile Health. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
This year the contest convened in person for the first time since 2019. (The 2020 and 2021 competitions took place online.) The event felt a little like a science fair and a little like a trade show. Guests and judges strolled through the college basketball court where the entries sat lined up with their presenters standing in front. Graphs, television sets and illustrations of the projects in action accompanied the projects.
Before lunch, guests had time to peruse the projects and ask questions about the science behind the products, as well as how much it would take to bring the inventions to market. Afterward, the contestants gathered in the college’s snug theater building for the final demonstrations in front of the judges.
The crowd was modest, with a little more than 100 guests browsing the booths and asking questions. Some students with flashier projects, like a tall indoor garden made from PVC pipe, had a line of guests throughout the walkthrough.
Sean Bullock, inventor of the Cortava neuro-stimulation system. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
One promising project was Cortava, a transcranial electrotherapy stimulation device that can assist people with mental health challenges, and is able to be worn inside a baseball cap, designed by a team from Oregon State University. During his final pitch, the presenter described through PowerPoint presentation the mental health challenges faced by today’s college students. He explained the science behind electrotherapy and how it can help by stimulating the brain. He wore his own device during the presentation and described in real time how his product helped decrease anxiety.
A team from the Oregon Institute of Technology presented NERFS, short for National Early Response Firefighting System — an automated chemical mortar cannon capable of detecting and extinguishing forest fires in 90 seconds. The device has the potential to extinguish a wildfire before it starts. In addition to the imposing cannon prototype, The NERFS team presented graphs detailing the devastating toll wildfires take on the state, and how the NERFS cannon could save the state billions of dollars in damage.
The team behind NERFS fire suppression at Invent Oregon at Rogue Community College. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
The Farrell brothers’ entry was a longboard fender called the Stormrider. Both avid longboarders, the brothers say a product like this is needed to protect the board from wear and tear. There are plenty of bicycle fenders on the market, but no comparable product for longboards, according to the Farrells.
Once the judges reached their decision, Stormrider placed second in the finals overall, behind women’s sportswear brand LoveHate Athletica — the other project presented by a UO team. The Farrell brothers took home $7,500 for their placement, while first-place winner Jensen Barnes won $10,000.
NERFS and Cortava tied for third, taking home $5,000 each. There were other awards too, like best community college project, which went to Umpqua Community College’s under-canopy lighting system for indoor farming, awarded $1,500.
NERFS also took home the contest’s visionary award, for the project able to best solve real-world problems.
The UO projects may not have been as dazzling or ambitious as some, but both put themselves ahead of the competition through clear business plans and the concrete ability to move forward. LoveHate Athletica had already set up preordering through its website, as well as a live-chat option. The Farrell brothers had already worked with freelancers to create their website and product design and were in the process of scaling their operation with the help of their university.
In addition to creating companies and inventions, Barraza says the competition also connects students with companies looking for fresh talent. For example, in 2019, an all-female team from the Oregon Institute of Technology that called itself the Reclaimers devised a method of converting plastic back into crude oil that landed them the first prize at the competition. After attending networking events sponsored by Invent Oregon, all members of the Reclaimers team were recruited to work at Oregon companies, including at optics engineering firm Leupold & Stevens and Portland General Electric.
Jensen Barnes presents LoveHate Athletica during the competition. She went on to win the event. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
“The women from the Reclaimers are already driving their organization forward with sustainability concepts and practices, and they will be taking leadership positions eventually,” says Barraza. He adds that the Reclaimers are wanted to continue getting work and lab experience before they restart the project on a larger scale.
Dagan Kay, who won Invent Oregon 2018, says Produce Mate would not have been possible without the support provided by both Invent Oregon and the Center for Entrepreneurship at Portland State University.
“The process leading up to the competition is really why I’m so fond of and thankful for the program,” says Kay, who is currently conducting another round of fundraising for Produce Mate.
“There was a summer’s worth of intensives, classes and opportunities to meet some of the people who make small business possible in Oregon,” Kay adds. “Meeting these thought leaders in the space was so, so important — not only for my self-confidence but for the hard skills and the workshops we did. And winning the money meant I didn’t have to find a quote-unquote ‘real job’ after I graduated, so I could really give this thing a shot.”
Kay was a philosophy major at the University of Portland before Produce Mate got accepted into Invent Oregon. He says the program’s summer courses on business, and Juan Barraza’s mentorship, were instrumental to his company’s early success and his professional development.
“I genuinely mean it with every ounce of my heart that Invent Oregon produced me. I wouldn’t have been able to take the entrepreneurial leap if it weren’t for Invent Oregon,” Kay says.
But Kay has decided to leave the state. Kay says his main motivation for moving was personal, and it wasn’t easy. But, he notes, in San Francisco he’ll have more access to investment capital for Produce Mate.
Invent Oregon organizer Juan Barraza. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
Barraza says Invent Oregon’s steps involve connecting more students with Invent Oregon’s resources to support more students founding their own businesses. Having to conduct Invent Oregon remotely in 2020 and 2021 gave Barraza the chance to use the internet to widen the reach of Invent Oregon to students across the state.
“The silver lining from COVID is that we were able to create a library of resources for students to be able to learn about design thinking, prototyping, rapid development and product design. This content can be delivered anywhere remotely, which, in terms of equity, means you don’t have to travel to one of the big cities to be able to access this content and mentors and resources,” says Barraza.
“We were able to explore during the pandemic how we can be more equitable.”
Barraza described the hiring challenges currently faced by tech companies, and says more and more talent will be coming from community colleges in the coming years, due to the rising cost of tuition at traditional four-year schools. Barraza has encouraged more companies to accept skill-based badges — certifications that show competency in advanced skill sets — as a criterion for employment.
Computer manufacturer Dell, for example, issues skill badges as part of its certification program, something Barraza wants Invent Oregon and the community colleges it works with to adopt.
“What employers really want to see from potential new hires are stories, like the kind of stories that get told at Invent Oregon. Badges tell a company if you have the skill set to work in teams, or rapid prototyping, design — once we map those skills our students have learned during the program with badges, employers will be able to gravitate more toward them,” Barraza says.
Rogue Community College, which hosted this year’s finals, has already adopted a badging program, which participants receive for completing their projects.
For Riley Farrell, now a senior at UO, the Invent Oregon competition was only the beginning. His capstone project will be to bring the Stormrider to skate shops all over the country. So far, the university has been eager to support him. One of his classes, called LaunchPad, is specifically designed to help students bring products to market.
In the winter, he will be conducting a literature review of how to conduct a successful Kickstarter campaign. Speaking with OB in the middle of summer, Riley said he was excited about returning to school in the fall.
The brothers say the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, a UO institution meant to develop scientific discoveries into business plans and make Oregon a competitive environment for startups, is already helping them scale and manufacture Stormrider.
Twins Bretten Farrell and Riley Farrell, photographed at UO, won second place at Invent Oregon with Stormrider, a rain fender for longboards. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
“The school is not just giving us a lab on campus,” Riley says. “They’re going to actually allow us to take this project to market through relationships with other manufacturers and innovative ways to make our product cheaper.”
The campus has provided them access to injection molds and more durable building material at its Additive Printing Lab. The campus is also helping to connect Stormrider with a manufacturer, though no relationships have been formed just yet. Riley says after more product development and testing, he will begin reaching out personally to manufacturers to make sure the Stormrider becomes a product on the market.
In the meantime, the Farrell brothers have every intention of competing in Invent Oregon again, this time with Bretten’s thesis project: a freeze-dried meal kit for backpacking.
Barraza says growing the competition by bringing more students, universities and stakeholders to the competition is still his main objective.
“We have just scratched the surface of what Invent Oregon can be. Working as a community innovator takes a lot of big institutions, universities and college students, but we will keep making it happen,” says Barraza, who has already begun working with next year’s finalists. “We are going to be here for a long, long time, and we’re going to make a difference.”
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