Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

The 13th Bend Venture Conference began with three events this week, all three designed to showcase companies that are often left behind by traditional venture funding.

The Social Impact Competition, the newest conference track, debuted Thursday afternoon at the Tower Theatre, hosted by Economic Development for Central Oregon. Brian Vierra, venture catalyst for EDCO, said the goal was to grow the conference by adding a track for companies that have a positive social or environmental impact built into their business models. Around 30 companies applied to the track, he said, and were evaluated for the traditional criteria for investment as well as for their capacity for positive social and environmental change.

“The bar was set higher than it was for the other two tracks,” Vierra said.

Four entrepreneurs presented their business plans, which ranged from providing quick disposable tests for malaria and sickle cell disease, to selling charging stations for electric vehicles that incorporate cloud-based software.

Sudara, an e-commerce clothing company that offers jobs and job training for victims of the sex trade in India, was the sole company from Bend.

“So much of it is about intrinsic value, that we’re doing something right,” said founder Shannon Keith during her presentation.

The winners from the Social Impact Competition will be announced this afternoon, along with the winners from early- and growth-stage competitions. The 10 finalist companies in the those two stages are scheduled to present today.

Rebekah Bastian, vice president of product for Zillow, was the keynote speaker for the Social Impact Competition. She spoke about the real estate company’s Community Pillar program, an affordable housing program that works with landlords to relax certain screening restrictions at apartment complexes.

While the Social Impact Competition was the first of its kind in Oregon, social impact investing is a growing field. The United States Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, a nonprofit that promotes and tracks sustainable investment, stated in a 2014 report that “socially responsible investing” exceeded $6.5 trillion that year, increasing by more than $2 trillion since 2012.

“We knew we had the demographic,” Vierra said of the Social Impact track.

The unConference, an informal pitch session for Bend-based entrepreneurs, took place Wednesday at The Capitol in downtown Bend. The winning company, Wedgis, a Bend-based company that makes swimwear, won a chance to pitch during the early-stage competition of Bend Venture Conference today.

Bend Outdoor Worx kicked off the investment portion of the week with the Venture Out Festival, the first outdoor-specific venture conference in the nation. Gary Bracelin, founder of Bend Outdoor Worx, said the group sold more than 390 tickets to the event.

“We didn’t quite sell it out, but for a first-time event, it was pretty good,” Bracelin said.

He said he was already thinking of ways to improve the event for next year, but added he wanted to schedule it again to coincide with the Bend Venture Conference, if possible.

“It worked really well as a complement,” Bracelin said.

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