The sector continues to expand and mature in the Gorge.
By Jon Bell
If you ask Andy von Flotow, a little bit of California dust from 20 years ago may have had as much to do with the rise of technology-based businesses in the Columbia River Gorge as anything.
In the spring of 1992, von Flotow had enough of being an MIT aeronautics professor and enough of East Coast living. He wanted to move west, so he made a couple reconnaissance missions, one to California and one to Oregon. On his visit to the Santa Cruz area, von Flotow found it nice, but incredibly dusty. When he spent a weekend in Hood River, the sun was out, the blossoms in bloom and the mountain in full glory — the kind of conditions that would make just about anybody want to move to Hood River.
Von Flotow bought an old orchard and farmhouse that weekend and moved his family out soon thereafter.
“It was really the most arbitrary of decisions,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to move to the nicer place?”
Soon after von Flotow planted roots in Hood River, his friend and Stanford classmate, Tad McGeer, moved to the area and the two co-founded a small unmanned aerial vehicle company called Insitu across the river in Bingen, Wash.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Insitu’s UAVs have since logged hundreds of thousands of hours of military and civilian missions around the world. Boeing bought the company for a reported $400 million in 2008; revenue hit the same number in 2010. Today, more than 800 people work for Insitu, with hundreds more finding work in technology startups that sprung up directly from or around Insitu along the way.
And there’s Google, which built a data center complex in The Dalles in 2006, in part because of the region’s climate and cheap power, along with the scores of small companies and solo tech entrepreneurs who’ve set up virtual shop in the Gorge as a way to work while indulging in the region’s renowned quality of life. Arbitrary or not, it makes for a vibrant and expanding scene centered around technology.
“The tech sector in general has grown significantly, a lot of which has been fueled by the growth of Insitu,” says Jessica Metta, executive director of the Gorge Tech Alliance, an industry nonprofit based in The Dalles. “But lots of other companies are growing as well. There’s definitely a nexus out here.”
Though much of the evidence of tech-sector growth may be somewhat anecdotal, the GTA’s membership alone is one good indicator. Since Metta joined the organization in 2008, membership has doubled to just over 100. Companies include everything from aerospace and carbon-composite engineers to software and graphic firms. Though many of those members might be one-person operations, Metta says the combined membership represents more than 2,000 employees throughout five Gorge counties: Hood River, Wasco and Sherman in Oregon, and Skamania and Klickitat in Washington.
“It’s a fascinating mix,” says Michael McElwee, executive director of the Port of Hood River, adding that tech is one of four key economic clusters in the region alongside agriculture, food processing and recreation and tourism. “Our economy really reflects, I think, the kind of economy that many people would like to see the entire state have.”
Because of Insitu, the unmanned aerial vehicle industry has taken off in the Gorge and helped seed the region with a range of tech companies that either supply or sometimes compete with Insitu. It’s bound to stay that way for a while. In December, the company solidified its position in the Gorge when it announced it would be consolidating all of its production operations in Bingen; it plans to construct a 70,000-square-foot production facility and a 30,000-square-foot testing building.
Two former Insitu employees, Ross Hoag and Bill Vaglienti, left the company in 1999 and founded Hood River’s Cloud Cap Technology, which specializes in autopilot technology and camera systems for UAVs. Steve Olson also worked at Insitu before starting SightLine Applications in 2007; it focuses on video processing technology, again for UAVs. SightLine’s largest customer is Hood Technology, von Flotow’s firm that supplies Insitu with most of its launch catapults, camera turrets and other technology.
“There’s a ton of aerospace out here, so there’s lots of cross-pollination,” says Olson, whose company employs six and has offices in Hood River and Portland.
The Gorge has also proven popular with tech-minded entrepreneurs who come to the region not for its tech scene, but for its outdoor recreation and scenic beauty. Technology allows them to live in the area yet run companies reaching far beyond the Gorge.
Google, too, has found the Gorge to be a good fit for its data center in The Dalles. The company employs 70 full-time workers and about 80 different contractors at its two-building complex. A third building is in the works.
Site manager Dave Karlson says Google’s presence in the Gorge has helped fill out the tech sector. That has diversified the area’s economy, which in the past was weighted heavily toward the aluminum industry. When that sector got hit hard, so did the area.
“Now, we still all got hit by the recession, but there’s a lot of different pieces in tech and the engineering sector that help make it better than it used to be,” Karlson says.
Google is also involved with one of the bigger concerns facing the region’s tech sector: education. The company has invested in youth robotics, including making two of its community grants to the Gorge Tech Alliance so the alliance could purchase LEGO robotics kits. In 2010, there were 18 school robotics teams in the Gorge; last year, there were 73.
“Every tech player out there needs more engineers,” Karlson says. “Anything we can do to light that fire and get that magic started” will benefit everyone, he says.
As the Gorge’s tech sector has continued to grow, it’s also been maturing. Jeff Nicol, a former Intel manager now involved with several tech endeavors in the Gorge, says he’s seen that in how support services for tech businesses have evolved.
“With insurance folks, things like aviation products liability — five or 10 years ago, nobody knew what that was,” he says. “Now they all do. There’s been lots of maturation there.”
Similarly, new construction projects have sprung up in part as a response to increased activities in the region’s tech and other clusters. The Port of Hood River’s Waterfront Business Park has undergone extensive redevelopment, including new and renovated buildings for Hood Technology, Real Carbon and Turtle Island Foods, among others. If all goes well, the redevelopment projects on the waterfront could bring in nearly $40 million in private investment. On top of that, Naito Development has submitted plans for an 88-room, waterfront Hampton Inn Suites hotel with conference rooms, two commercial buildings and a cable park, which provides a waterskiing or wakeboarding experience via an overhead cableway.
Nicol says such accommodations will help meet the demand of out-of-towners visiting on business trips.
Ken Levy has been behind three different tech startups from his home in Stevenson, Wash., over the past 15 years. His latest, 4-Tell, launched in 2009, creates product recommendation software for online retailers. He’s seen the sector grow, particularly as a result of Insitu’s success.
“Before that, you couldn’t really grow a big company out here,” Levy says. “You’d hit the 30-person point and then you’d have to start pulling people from Portland or somewhere else. Now, you often don’t have to look that far anymore.”