The Portland Seed Fund: Boom or Bust?

By Joel Grey

The Portland Seed Fund started as a public-private venture intended to close a funding gap for small loans to entrepreneurs. The City of Portland, the City of Hillsboro, and the State of Oregon provided a majority of the funds for the first Seed Fund and a significant portion of the second Seed Fund. It was sold as a way for public entities to help private companies begin, with the expectation that the Fund would earn money.

At this time, it is impossible to say whether the Fund has earned a profit because that information is not publicly available, and none of the public entities involved could give an answer when asked what the return on investment had been. The first person I contacted at the Portland Development Commission said the Seed Fund didn’t sound familiar. The City Budget Office also didn’t initially recognize the name of the Seed Fund, but a budget analyst eventually contacted someone at the PDC. However, that person has not responded.

The conclusion from all of these conversations is that there is little or no accountability in place to ensure that taxpayer money is being well spent, nor is there a way for taxpayers to see how their money is being spent.

Ultimately, there are professionals who risk private money in venture capital firms. Government entities shouldn’t play venture capitalists with taxpayer funds.

Joel Grey is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Taxpayers Should Be ReVolted by Green Business Subsidies

Last week another publicly subsidized “green business” company filed for bankruptcy in Portland. ReVolt Technology had received $6.8 million in state and local subsidies, plus another $5 million from the Obama administration, for its electric car battery technology, but could not get the product to market.

 

One would hope that the repeated failures of subsidized companies would induce a modicum of humility among the political class, but this does not appear to be happening. The director of the Portland Development Commission, which approved a $1.3 million loan to ReVolt, told The Oregonian, “It’s obviously disappointing, but we certainly know we’re going to have a few of these.”

 

Taxpayers should be outraged by this attitude. The Oregon Constitution prohibits public investment in private companies, so none of the companies being propped up with taxpayer money should have ever received a penny in the first place. Yet, the Portland Development Commission is fully expecting to have more public money lost in private sector bankruptcies.

 

There is an important role for government to play in technological innovation, but it’s not to serve as a venture capital fund. In the daily competition among market participants, government should simply call the balls and strikes and enforce the rules of the game. Players should come from the private sector; and the best products should be determined by consumers in the market process, not by government cronyism.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.