Jessica Gomez is an entrepreneurial fairy godmother to tech startups in southern Oregon. Instead of granting wishes, she empowers new businesses with tools necessary to grow into successful enterprises.
Gomez is a founding member of Sustainable Valley Technology Group (SustainableValley.Technology), a startup accelerator based in Medford, Ore. The nonprofit was founded in 2010 after Gomez launched her own technology company, Rogue Valley Microdevices, and discovered that a local support system for startups was lacking. “There wasn't really a structure for how a startup should go about educating themselves, about resources that were available, about what they needed to do in order to be successful,” Gomez recalls.
That frustration gave birth to Sustainable Valley Technology Group (SVTG), whose mission is to support a regional culture of entrepreneurship; to connect these startup companies with capital; and to provide them with tools necessary to be successful. More than 30 local businesses so far have benefited from the program, which includes a combination of classes, incubator workshops and individualized mentorship.
In this effort, Gomez is helping to foster a growing group of startups outside of the high-tech hot spots of San Francisco and New York. In our hyper-connected world, it's no longer a "prerequisite" to move to a major city to forge startup success. These are entrepreneurs who, quite literally, prefer greener pastures.
Gomez spoke with Name.Kitchen about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur helping other entrepreneurs -- and how another well-known tech “valley” in northern California inspired the name for her nonprofit.
Why did you take it upon yourself to establish a startup accelerator in southern Oregon? You could have just focused on growing your own business.
Being an entrepreneur is a lot of hard work, especially in the technology field. I felt like there was a big need out there for something like this, and there wasn't anything filling that need. If we can make it a little bit easier for the next company to start here, I thought that would be a really great thing for our local economy.
What makes southern Oregon fertile ground for a startup accelerator? When most people think of startups, cities such as San Francisco and Austin typically spring to mind first.
This is not a great place to do this – but that's why it's so much more important to have this kind of activity in a more rural setting than, say, a Portland or a bigger city. This type of activity can have a really big impact on the local economy.
Describe some of the local startups that have benefited.
This past year, we've worked with a company that's developing an all-electric ATV-type vehicle for farming applications, for precision farming. In the same accelerator group, we also had a company that makes a fermented honey drink, like a probiotic drink that's made from honey, and that's bottled and sold locally here. We had another company that was developing an online platform for posting videos, but also an integrated e-commerce piece to that -- so you could watch a video about the product that you're interested in, and then buy it right on the same screen. We also have a company that is currently prototyping an Aeroponics pod to grow microgreens at 98-percent water efficiency without the need for natural lights or soil.
That’s a diverse group. What’s been the biggest learning curve for them?
Getting them used to the investor model. We have a lot of local people who are really interested in investing in these companies, but they feel like the companies local to this area are not quite ready for the type of investment they'd be making. We help these companies develop into a more sophisticated version of themselves -- so that they're ready when an angel investor wants to invest $100,000 or $300,000 into their company. That might not seem like a lot, relatively speaking. But for a small rural area like ours, that's a big deal.
Sounds like you could have called the organization “Start-up Fairy Godmother.” Explain the name, Sustainable Valley Technology Group.
We use the word "sustainable" with respect to [a business’] ability to stay in business and become a thriving company. We want companies that have a sustainable business model so that they're going to be around for the next ten, 15 years.
Ah, so it’s not “sustainable” in the eco-friendly sense of the word.
In the very, very beginning, we did have this pretty narrow vision of sustainable from a green technology standpoint. Oregon's really known for being big in that area, so that was the way we could immediately convey the types of companies that we would like to cultivate locally. However, we've learned that diversity is more important as a sustainable business model -- rather than trying to promote just one type of company.
In this respect, the name serves as an umbrella term for a lot of different business categories.
Our economy was very agricultural-based, timber-based and service-based. We really wanted a different vision for what our economy should be. And so this name we felt was able to convey that kind of vision right up front.
“Sustainable Valley” is vaguely similar to “Silicon Valley.” Coincidence there?
Yeah, that was part of the thought process, that we could come up with this cool spin on Silicon Valley. That was part of our thinking when we selected the name. But I would say it probably hasn't caught on in the way that we thought it would.
In the end we liked it because it’s unique. It just really stuck. It conveys an idea that we can have a sustainable economy here with companies that are thriving in all different sectors of technology. And there weren’t five other companies out there named “Sustainable Valley” something.
You’re among the first organization to be using a ‘dot-technology’ [.technology] domain as your website URL. How did you decide that?
When we established the company, we used the traditional 'dot-com' [.com] ending because that is what people are used to seeing, and is a default choice for people typing in domain names. However, when we found that 'dot-technology' [.technology] was available, we switched over because it seemed to fit better with our image and mission. While 'dot-com' is for commercial entities and 'dot-org' is for non-profits, neither seemed to quite fit with what we were heading for as an organization.
Our focus is on up-and-coming technologies and supporting disruptive innovations. [The 'dot-technology' domain] is easy to remember, and it fits with our mission. Plus, we also thought it was something fun. We try not to do things too seriously.
Yet, the mission for Sustainable Valley Technology Group is serious. You're revitalizing the economy of a rural area by championing technology-based startups.
Absolutely. We’re using [the website] to connect with our companies, to connect with the community, and to help convey our mission and our vision. They can browse through the website and really see what's going on in our area, what's available through our organization. So we're really using it to communicate with our stakeholders and our customers, which are the accelerating companies and investors.
Learn more about this organization by visiting the website www.sustainablevalley.technology.