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Bend's Technology Pioneers Open for Business 

Humanoid robots, cost-effective space travel and high tech trail maps ahead

Abbe the robot. Photo by Mark Silliman.

Abbe the robot. Photo by Mark Silliman.

One of the most exciting things about Bend is that it inspires people who have a spirit of adventure and zest for life. Through technology, new worlds are opening that didn't exist last year, and some don't exist yet, but soon will. Bend is home to some of the most innovative entrepreneurs in the world, and their enthusiasm bubbles over for the frontiers they are exploring.

> Timber town to tech frontier

In 1916, the two biggest pine mills in the world launched operations in Bend. Within a few decades, the mills were running out of timber, and by 1994, Bend's era as a timber town ended.

Just one generation later, a new age is upon the city.

Last month, Sen. Ron Wyden noted Bend is on the cusp of becoming a tech mecca, and at the most recent Economic Development of Central Oregon (EDCO) pub talk, this became clear. Three tech startups presented: Trailhead Labs, i3D MFG, and Bold Robotics. Old St. Francis was packed to capacity with standing room only and the crowd listened attentively, because if there is one thing Bend knows, it's that times change.

> Bold Robotics: humanoid and helpful

"This is a big moment for robotics,"says Mark Silliman, founder of the tech startup Bold Robotics in Bend. Robots have existed since the 1970s, he explains, but in September of 2015 came a major breakthrough. Now, not only are robots collaborative, they are also under $50,000. "This means that accessibility is up, and the price is down." His company is creating a drag and drop interface that makes robots work. His humanoid robot Abbe, named by his daughters, is just the third interactive robot in Oregon.

As the saying goes, this is not his first rodeo. The 32-year-old father of four daughters (ages 6, 4, 2 and newborn) has already successfully launched five tech startups. The most recent was Smart Waiver, used by the NFL Super Bowl and Major League Baseball.

He and his wife relocated to Bend from Chicago just over six years ago, initially for a specific reason. "I'm probably one of the only people in the world who moved to Oregon for a tax benefit," he says. Oregon, a state without sales tax, is immune to affiliate nexus taxes, something that was threatening his business in Illinois.

He describes himself as an unemployable hothead who started making companies. His love for robotics first manifested in college when he was part of a university research team studying nuclear waste, but it was the robotics lab on campus that gained his fascination. "Early access was critical," he says.

At that time, a basic robot cost millions of dollars. Today, a collaborative robot is about the price of a new car. Abbe is a humanoid robot, similar in size to humans. Silliman explains that was once considered unnecessary. However, "What we learned from Fukushima [Japan's worst nuclear disaster of March 2011] is that to interact in an environment designed for humans requires robots similar in size and shape to humans," he says. "Now they are designing a robot to go into Fukushima for exploratory purposes, to close some valves," he says. He's traveling to Japan and South Korea frequently these days, a journey that starts with a long bus ride to Portland.

That ride to Portland could become more comfortable if his next prediction for self-driving cars proves correct. "Autonomous cars will introduce a new era," he says, "and this will happen in less than 10 years." It's almost a given, he explains, with Toyota earmarking $1 billion for development with a nine-year timeline. Google has pinned its sights on eight years, and Tesla, Uber and BMW are in the autonomous car race, too.

Robots will likely be specialized, he foresees, such as one to deep clean the carpet and another one to do the dishes. "We won't all own a robot, but renting it sounds great." He says in Japan, robots are seen as helpers and positive influences, whereas in the U.S., this isn't yet the case.

Medical applications are numerous, he notes. In addition to mild level eldercare, such as reminding people to take medication, exoskeletons are an emerging robotic technology that will help people in wheelchairs who are paralyzed to walk on their own. Robots already exist for nano-surgery, such as the da Vinci® robot used by St. Charles Hospital for minimally invasive surgery. "The next step will be to add a network," he says. "That means that a doctor anywhere in the world could do surgery remotely in Bend."

Cooking might be another robot chore. "Not the art of cooking," he says, "but, 'Make me pasta.'"

> Trailhead Labs: rec meets tech

Trailhead Labs' chief technology officer, Jereme Monteau, relocated to Bend from the Bay Area in September. The company creates software to support parks and trails, using a common language and interactive maps to help people plan and experience outdoor adventures.

The National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Aug. 25, and Trailhead Labs is helping usher in a new era of web-based outer-spacial applications for park websites.

"One of the pain points from parks is that data is siloed," Monteau explained to the EDCO group. "Park websites are the last place people look for information," he says, but his company is changing that. Trailhead Labs was co-founded in Silicon Valley three years ago by Monteau and Ryan Branciforte to provide public agencies with web-based, rich, interactive maps and a common language for trails and parks.

"The parks and rec community is underserved by technology in general," says Monteau. "Our mission is to get people outside, giving people better technology to do that," he says. One of the company's core products is a platform for mapping and presenting curated content across a broad diversity of outdoor assets. Today, the company works with nonprofits, municipal governments, and state and national parks throughout the United States, including the Portland Intertwine Alliance in Oregon and Washington.

Monteau, 38, originally from Alaska, was recruited to Silicon Valley in '99 right out of college, and spent the last 16 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He met his wife Ariel, who is from Santa Fe, in a rock climbing gym in 2000, and the couple discovered Central Oregon together on a trip to Smith Rock. With two young children, Orion, 4 and Denali, 2, they briefly considered moving to Portland, but found that it felt too urban after visiting Bend. Although it was difficult to leave behind a network of friends, one thing that was easy was selling their Bay Area home, for which they received eight offers in two weeks. What they have found now that they have made the move, Monteau says, is that "Bend is a good place for folks when lifestyle becomes the focus."

Trailhead Labs is now one of many companies exploring "distributed teams." This means that not all employees work in the same city. Monteau says this is increasingly common in the tech sector. After 16 years in Silicon Valley, he finds Bend's tech sector to be a big surprise. "Even before I got here, people began reaching out to me," he says. He has found it to be a close-knit, collaborative community that is not just focused on tech, but also on entrepreneurship. "I was not expecting that," he said. The Monteaus enjoy the beautiful Cascades, good coffee, and above all, "It's been great for our kids," he says.

> i3D MFG™: 3-D printed parts for spacecraft

Some people travel by foot, others prefer a rocket. Disruptive innovation is buzzing in Bend at i3D MFG™, a tech startup in the 3-D metal printing business with double digit sales growth over the past three years. The "disruptive" concept in a nutshell is that through innovation new markets are created. Commercial space travel, for example, is a new market made possible by emerging technology.

The market for 3-D metal printing is projected to grow from just under $1 billion today to $8 billion in the next four years and could be closer to $20 billion, says the company's CEO, Erin Stone. The last space race was not commercial, she told the EDCO audience. Today with multiple companies exploring commercial space travel, i3D MFG serves six of the top 10 space companies globally. At the EDCO meeting, Stone and her business partner, Chief Strategic Officer Chad Cooper, passed around a spaceship part made by the company.

She explained that 3-D metal printing creates 100 percent dense parts using very fine layers of metal powder micro-welded together by a 400-watt laser. Though the technology may be mind-boggling, it's easy to understand why ultra dense parts would be considered superior for rockets and satellites.

The company is currently one of only eight in the country that specializes in 3D metal printing. Its focus is predominantly the aerospace industry, particularly space craft. In addition to aerospace, 20 percent of its clients are in the medical sector and 20 percent are in defense. There are other applications for 3-D metal printing, including recreational gear, and the automotive and energy sectors.

Stone says that this new technology complements traditional manufacturing by allowing industries to design and produce disruptive, complex parts that cannot be traditionally machined nor molded.

"The 3D metal printing industry is projected to grow significantly faster than the rest of the 3D printing market due to strong growth in 3D printed, metal, finished production parts," says Stone.

"We love to partner with local machine shops to offer a complete range of services to our customers or theirs," she says.

Benefits of 3-D metal printing include reducing part weights by 70 percent, eliminating assemblies, gaskets and potential part failure points by printing assemblies as single parts. "It's cost-effective," says Stone, and that's good business. The company's vision is to be the leading disruptive innovator for the 3D metal printing industry. With the tsunami of demand it is experiencing, that goal may be reached in the near future.

The company has two locations, one in Bend and one in The Dalles. "We love Oregon, especially Central Oregon and all it has to offer in terms of natural beauty and fun communities. The advantages far outweigh any inconveniences," Stone says.

> Startup secret sauce

One thing the three tech firms have in common, is that they each have clients who demand what very few others can provide. Bold Robotic's CEO has learned a few lessons about startups. He says the most important matter is to begin with a client, before going down the road two to three years in development. Another issue he sees in Bend is a mindset that employers don't have to pay as much because it's Bend. "Of course we have to compete to attract the best in the world," he says. "It's wrong and unhealthy and messes everything up to pay low wages," he says. "People come to Bend on purpose and that passion is attractive."

Central Oregon is already well-integrated into the knowledge culture, and the tech sector in Bend is expected to continue to grow. High tech output grew in the Bend-Redmond metro area by 19 percentage points above the national average from 2009 to 2014, according to the Milken Institute's "2015 Best Performing Cities." The city's business-friendly environment, welcoming tech community, well-educated workforce, natural beauty and high quality of life will likely continue to make it attractive to tech entrepreneurs for years to come.


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