The 2013 Willamette Angel Conference (WAC), held May 9 at the OSU CH2M Hill Alumni Center, exceeded all expectations, morphing into what organizers dubbed “the biggest Angel Venture conference in Oregon history.” Over $465,000 in prize money was divvied up amongst the top four companies selected in the competition, which began months ago with a pool of 39 start-ups, whittled down to five finalists, each presenting a seven-minute pitch to investors at the conference.
After an opening speech by Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning, who pointed out the WAC has raised over a million dollars for local start-ups in the last five years, event MC Rich Duncombe invoked motivational quotes from John Quincy Adams, Plato, and Buddha, before introducing keynote speaker Diane Fraiman. A venture partner at Voyager Capital, Fraiman gave a riveting speech titled “The Sex in Innovation and Entrepreneurs,” asking participants “How do we really rock the Willamette Valley boat? What if we each got involved and each adopted a company today? We’re Oregonians. We like teamwork, we’re creative, we think outside the box, we embrace innovation and new ways… You are part of the solution. You have to help the local ecosystem and these local entrepreneurs… innovation is sexy, growth is healthy, and the genius of this vision is here already. It’s you. It’s the entrepreneurs that we’re going to hear at this event, and the ones we talk to every day. It’s the kids graduating from our schools. It’s the ecosystem that supports all of this fantastic opportunity.” Fraiman went on to describe how Oregon’s early stage start-up community has had over $600,000,000 invested in the last 24 months, catalyzing hiring statewide, often bringing in talent from elsewhere, because “Our brand is growing as a fantastic state to build businesses. It costs less to start, it costs less to grow, it costs less to operate, and we’re a great place to live.” She lamented, however, that four of the five finalists this year were from Portland, and implored the conference to make sure next year’s finalists all hail from the Willamette Valley.
After this year’s finalists presented their pitches—and weathered Q&A sessions with the audience—the main investment prize of $255,000 was awarded to Sonivate Medical, chosen by a core group of WAC LLC investors. David Starr, Sonivate president and CEO, gushed, “It feels really good, I can tell you that. But I can tell you there’s lots of great companies here. This group is strongly supportive of entrepreneurs, as demonstrated by all these sidecar investments. I was just totally surprised by the whole thing, the whole process was very gratifying.” Asked to describe the genesis of his company’s prototype—a fingertip-mounted ultrasound probe which could revolutionize medical procedures by removing the need for three-handed procedures—David elaborated: “It came from our founder, a cardiologist who was observing the cardiac surgeons in the operating rooms struggle with these big probes, and he thought, ‘these guys tie knots… see what they’re doing with their fingertips all the time, if I put it in their fingertip, they could do it on their own.'” Kyle Spradling, who led the due diligence team which vetted Sonivate, said, “They had this amazing momentum leading up to this.”
The remaining $210,000 of award money, dubbed “sidecar investments,” will be split by runners up Amorphyx, DesignMedix, and Green Zebra Grocery. Amorphyx is developing LED technology to drastically reduce manufacturing costs of display screens, with a novel 3-ply design replacing traditional 5-9 ply displays—basically replacing complex transistors with a simple diode. DesignMedix is developing designer pharmaceuticals to overcome antibiotic resistance, as well as working on a cure for malaria. Green Zebra Grocery is poised to open their flagship version of a healthy convenience store, dubbed by founder and CEO Lisa Selder as a “Mash-up between 7-11 and Whole Foods… bringing back the corner store, but in a healthy format.”
A separate competition of early “concept stage” start-ups was also held during the conference, awarding an additional prize of $2,500 cash and $7,500 in business services. The winner, chosen by audience vote, was Hallspot, a social networking app designed specifically for college students. Other competitors included BioZense, Inc., which is developing a non-invasive medical monitoring technology inspired by Star Trek and initially tested on “Lola the Cat,” and Trashtalker, a mobile app that aims to develop a social network for “haters, trolls, and curmudgeons to finally call home”.
Gold Level sponsors of the WAC include both OSU and the University of Oregon, as well as Palo Alto Software and other local companies. The event alternates between Corvallis and Eugene each year, a partnership dubbed “Two great cities, working together.”
By Seth Aronson