New hub for innovators and entrepreneurs set to open in downtown Eugene

Content: Register Guard

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After a $3 million remodel, a new innovation hub is set to open this week in Eugene, near Lane Community College’s downtown campus and the Eugene Public Library.

It will be home to the Eugene branch of the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN), a collaborative program to help create companies and jobs in the southern Willamette Valley, and to two University of Oregon programs.

They are the university’s Product Design program and the Tyler Invention Greenhouse, a new project to use advances in “green chemistry” to bring to market products that are safer for the environment and for human health.

The new space brings the latest ideas in sustainability and green chemistry, product design studios, and RAIN’s entrepreneurial activities “together under one roof,” said Jim Hutchison, a UO chemistry professor and a founder of the invention greenhouse.

The building at 942 Olive St., which is owned by the UO, is in the heart of downtown — not on the university campus. It’s not associated with a particular school or program.

The hope is that it will be “owned by innovators,” said Joe Maruschak, director and chief startup officer of RAIN Eugene.

Each program has a section of the 12,800-square-foot building, but it was designed to be open and flexible, with many shared spaces, including a board room, classroom, events space, break area and indoor bicycle parking.

When the hub is in full swing, professors and students from different departments, and visiting experts will meet at the Tyler Invention Greenhouse on the south side of the building, near the entrance off Olive Street. Product design students will dip in and out of the building throughout the day to attend classes and work on projects in the design studio, computer-­assisted design lab, and in the polymer lab in the western part of the building. The polymer lab, where students will work with more sustainable types of plastic, will have fabrication equipment, such as a 3-D printer and laser cutter.

John Arndt, director of the UO’s Product Design department, said its new space will be a “huge improvement” over its old space, primarily at the former Romania showroom on Franklin Boulevard.

He said about 160 UO students are majoring in product design.

Add to the mix, entrepreneurs, mentors and investors involved in RAIN’s 16-week business accelerator and other programs for startups. RAIN’s meeting rooms, co-working space and classroom are at the northeast corner of the building.

Sound a little chaotic? That’s the point, Maruschak said.

If noise should carry from the product design work spaces to areas where classes or events are being held, “that means more people are talking to each other,” finding out what people are working on and potentially collaborating, Maruschak said.

“We’re not trying to figure out how to make sure we don’t collide,” he said. “We actually want people to collide.”

Sharing the building with all these other people is what Maruschak said he finds most exciting about RAIN’s new home.

For the past two years, RAIN worked out of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce offices on Willamette Street.

The chamber office was open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., whereas the new space will be accessible around-the-clock to students, faculty, RAIN staff and RAIN accelerator companies with key cards, he said.

The building is one of three in downtown Eugene with high-speed Internet access as part of the downtown fiber project, backed by the city of Eugene, Eugene Water & Electric Board and others.

Maruschak said he also likes the downtown location. Recently looking east through the building’s floor-to-ceiling front window, he pointed to the Woolworth Building and Broadway Commerce Center.

“Some of our (RAIN) mentors are right there,” he said, reeling off a half dozen tech companies, including AppNexus, Avant Assessment and Palo Alto Software.

“Being in the center of the action, people can pop over,” Maruschak said. They don’t have to make an appointment at the Chamber of Commerce or go to campus to meet, he said.

Numerous partners collaborated to launch the innovation hub and pay for $3 million in renovations, which began last year.

The city of Eugene, through its Urban Renewal Agency, sold the building, which formerly housed the Bradford’s Home Entertainment store, to the UO for $1, as its contribution to RAIN.

The Lane County Assessor in 2015 estimated the market value of the building at $874,639. That value provided the match necessary to tap $1.25 million allocated by the state Legislature for a RAIN building in Eugene, Maruschak said.

The Tyler Invention Greenhouse was founded with a $500,000 gift from the Alice C. Tyler Perpetual Trust, a supporter of UO environmental science projects.

The UO contributed an additional $1.25 million, Maruschak said.

The space looks unfinished, with exposed ceiling beams in most of the rooms and flakeboard walls in many areas.

The project ran into some unexpected costs to make structural improvements to the building, which was constructed in 1908.

“It has a warehouse feel,” Maruschak said. “You feel like you’re building something when you come in here.”

Maruschak and Andrew Nelson, the UO’s executive director of RAIN activities, said they’re not sure who will occupy the innovation hub or what it might look like years from now.

The local entrepreneurial ecosystem has evolved so rapidly over the past two years that “I can’t predict what will happen in five years,” Maruschak said.

“I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t evolve,” Nelson said.

“If it doesn’t change in five years, we’re doing something very wrong,” Maruschak said.

The new building will host an invitation-only opening ceremony on Tuesday.

Follow Sherri on Twitter @sburimcdonald . Email [email protected] .