For a small community, it’s clear that Bend has big magnetic pull for entrepreneurs, investors and creatives eager to reinvent work and play. This drive doesn’t imply a lack of ambition either. True to its outdoor lifestyle and pioneering roots, Bend is in constant motion and in search of new ventures. It’s a mindset that impacts everything from kombucha to software, single track to food carts.
Proof? The city ranks consistently as one of the country’s top locations for entrepreneurship, hosts one of the largest angel conferences in the U.S. and is home to dozens of fast-growing startups shaping an evolving culture of innovation. In the last several years, the epicenter of that culture has been Bend’s westside where a center of gravity is pulling entrepreneurs and innovators in close proximity to each other.
At the BendTech building off of Emkay Drive, caffeinated conversations are turning ideas into realities in sectors including tech, food, outdoor, biotech, aviation and more. Less than half a mile away, multinational software companies are expanding into offices along Chandler Avenue. Across the street, students are pursuing degrees in business, engineering, and computer science at the new OSU—Cascades campus. And by the end of the year, the Innovation Center for Entrepreneurship (ICE) will open its doors on SW Columbia Street to the next generation of creative thinkers.
“A research university is a catalyst for discovery and invention,” said Kelly Sparks, associate vice president for OSU-Cascades. “Our faculty and students are already working with companies and organizations near campus to problem solve and innovate.
This hub of energy and commerce has prompted another big idea – designating the area as the Innovation District. Led by Five Talent CEO Preston Callicott, the initiative has been adopted by the City of Bend as a means of attracting new businesses and spawning the expansion of existing ones. On May 3, city councilors announced the official formation of the Innovation District and proclaimed Bend as the “City of Innovation.”
They also noted the inaugural Innovation Day event in mid-July which will be co-hosted by Opportunity Knocks and the Bend Chamber of Commerce.
“This isn’t just about the tech industry,” says Callicott. “When you have this kind of creative momentum happening, it’s got impact beyond the private sector. We have the opportunity to catalyze innovation as a mindset for how we tackle our biggest challenges as a community. That includes everything from job creation to affordable housing.”
It’s a message the City of Bend is embracing.
“Bend already has all the elements in place for building a strong, sustainable economy. Right now, our job is to make sure we do everything we can to create opportunities for future generations,” says City Councilor Bill Moseley. “This gets us focused on a vision that can get us there.”
The Innovation District covers most of the Upper Mill District between Emkay Drive and Colorado, Chandler and Washington Avenues. The designation formalizes the intersection of entrepreneurship and business with higher education at OSU Cascades.
“OSU already understands the value of partnering with local companies,” Callicott says. He was recently asked to sit on the hiring committee for the Innovation Center’s executive director position. “I appreciate the value they’re placing on a business perspective as they vet candidates.”
In addition to the district designation, Callicott and others will form a non-profit organization called Innovate Central Oregon (ICO) to represent the businesses located within the district as well as to collaborate with existing groups such as EDCO, Bend 2030, Looking Forward, BEDAB and others. The ICO mission will be to support tri-county innovation initiatives.
ICO will create and attract events to Bend that highlight the city’s innovative spirit. Whether formal or informal, events will be centered on fostering a better understanding of the ideation process. For example, Innovation Day will highlight stories of innovation from all sectors of the Central Oregon community and give attendees a chance to discuss and share ideas.
“Ideation and Innovation may be tech industry buzzwords, but they’re the key to solving any problem — social, political or economic,” says Callicott. “We need to become masters at them and, to do that, we have to practice. They are the most critical job skills of the 21st century.”
Market leaders like Amazon, Google, and Apple agree. Historically, the companies have invested millions of dollars trying to tap into the creative genius of their employees. And they are investing millions more at groups like Google’s Innovation Lab, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and others. IDEO, a Bay Area global design company considered a thought leader in ideation, has spent years understanding the science of innovation including the methodologies, work practices, culture and infrastructure that support creative problem solving. According to Founder David Kelley, building creative confidence and surfacing collective wisdom is foundational to strong ideation, and the fastest way to leverage it is with personal, face-to-face interactions that allow for experimentation and discovery.
“Designating a small geographical area with a shared vision for collaboration will concentrate the creative juice,” says Callicott. “The Innovation District will bring entrepreneurs closer to each other and create fertile ground for new ideas and businesses. That kind of intellectual cross-pollination benefits everyone.”
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