As one of the nation’s top green universities, Portland State has long pledged itself to the pursuit of social, environmental, and economic sustainability. In line with this vision, Propel PSU, too, has committed to producing high-impact programming, research, and innovation dedicated to combating the effects of climate change. However, this goal would not be possible without the help of a network of like-minded collaborators. One key ally in the fight for a more sustainable future has been a local nonprofit by the name of VertueLab.
VertueLab’s relationship with PSU dates all the way back to the group’s origins in 2007. Known then as Oregon BEST, the organization served as one of three Signature Research Centers (SRCs) founded by the State of Oregon to expand university research capacity and bridge the gap between campus research and development and market commercialization.
Since that time, however, VertueLab has also moved beyond universities and into the private sector. As the first organization in the country to make direct, program-related investments in cleantech startups, VertueLab is in the business of empowering green companies to innovate for the greater good. Through their work, VertueLab funds and offers entrepreneurial support to the cleantech industry within Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
For startups within Propel and the PSU community, VertueLab has been an “invaluable resource and a wonderful partner,” says Julia Baldwin, program manager of the Portland State Business Accelerator (PSBA). “In addition to their support for our cleantech companies, VertueLab provides training and guidance to the larger PSBA audience as well.” VertueLab’s seminars at the PSBA educate companies of grant opportunities through the federally sponsored SBIR/STTR program. These funds from the US Small Business Administration help to provide critical seed money for small businesses and serve to support the commercialization of developing technology by allowing for further research and development.
Beyond this, VertueLab also offers financial investment through an internal Climate Impact Fund and operates a 15-week incubator program in conjunction with the CleanTech Alliance. Since its inception in 2015, the Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator has helped shape the growth and direction of over 30 green companies, including PSU’s own spinout Stark Street Materials. By providing companies opportunities to workshop, network, and receive mentorship, VertueLab gives entrepreneurs a running start in the development and marketing of their products.
But support in this relationship does not just go one way; PSU also provides services to companies connected with VertueLab as well. Typically, funding applications require startups to provide investors and funding agencies with data and objective proofs of concept for their proposed technology. For companies outside of the PSU bubble, university facilities can be used as third-party laboratories to help test prototypes and perform these necessary evaluations. Furthermore, PSU faculty may be tapped to provide consultation as domain specialists to different startups in their areas of expertise. This open access allows relevant knowledge and experience to be readily disseminated into the greater entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The partnership between Propel and VertueLab is further cemented through the overlap of staff on various committees and councils between the two organizations. PSU’s Assistant Vice President for Research Joseph Janda, who heads Propel, recently stepped down from a four-year appointment on VertueLab’s board of directors. Director of Student Innovation, Juan Barraza, meanwhile, currently serves on the advisory board for the organization’s Climate Impact Fund. Finally, Vanessa Margolis, who leads Vertuelab’s entrepreneurial support programs and directs its portfolio, serves on the review committee for the university’s Venture Development Fund and as a recurring judge for the Center for Entrepreneurship’s annual CleanTech Challenge.
As both organizations look forward to the future, Margolis is hopeful that the partnership between VertueLab and Propel will continue. “The ecosystem in Oregon is designed to be a very collaborative one, and we work well together,” says Margolis. “We both want a prosperous economy and we both want to find a solution to climate change. We’re always working to figure out how to better grow the pie and to leverage the respective strengths of our organizations.”
As the US continues to grapple with the complex realities of climate change, Portland remains on the frontlines as one of the country’s top metro areas for cleantech development and clean energy jobs. For the health and longevity of the ecosystem, the ongoing investments of Propel and VertueLab are a crucial component. “The CleanTech industry is different. It can be hard out there for a new company to thrive,” says Margolis. “But at the end of the day, if you’re going to fight climate change, early-stage companies are part of the solution. To make their impact in the world, they’re going to need support to grow and scale – and that is precisely what we are all about.“