The firm thinks now is the time to be investing in public safety technology. One of the big reasons why? FirstNet.
The Florida-based venture capital firm, now about two years old and six investments deep, is in the process of raising money for its first official fund. Up until now, it’s been working with capital from founder Nathanial Wish’s family investment office.
The Center for Digital Government* estimates that the tech market for public safety in the U.S. in 2017 is about $7.6 billion. Responder thinks now is a good time to be investing in new ideas. One of the big reasons why? FirstNet.
The initiative to create a nationwide broadband network for emergency responders, now several years old, is picking up steam. Earlier this year the authority behind the project signed on AT&T as its vendor to build the network, and states are moving faster than expected to develop their individual deployment plans.
A nationwide broadband connectivity could be a game-changer for high-throughput tech like video analytics and augmented reality headsets, Wish said. And there’s no shortage of applications for that kind of tech in public safety — just a lack of ability to set them up.
“We’ve come across some really cool tech that we’d love to support and the agencies want to use it, but there’s just not the broadband to support it,” Wish said.
Further, said managing partner Bryce Stirton, FirstNet could lead to some big changes when it comes to selling to public safety agencies.
“[Currently] you’re going around to every municipality, you’re going around to state and local guys to try to sell your product,” Stirton said. “FirstNet is going to have a marketplace like an app store and you’re going to be able to reach a huge section of the market in one place.”
That’s important in a field where, like much of government, the vendors who win are often those who already hold the contract.
Responder Ventures is looking for the newer, smaller players who need help overcoming that obstacle in order to sell new ideas to agencies like fire and police departments. The firm’s strategy is to focus on startups in the Series A range — those whose products are already built out — and write checks between $500,000 and $1 million.
“We don’t like to take product development risk, we like something we can touch, see and feel,” Stirton said.
There’s not any particular limit on the kind of technology the firm is looking to support, so long as it’s relevant to public safety and accomplishes some goal such as making emergency responders safer.
But the firm does like to see particular kinds of entrepreneurs — namely, those who have had their feet on the ground in the agencies they want to serve. After all, that’s where the firm came from. Wish is a reserve deputy and detective at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Dennis Weiner, co-founder, is a U.S. Navy Reserve officer and has served as the chief of police for multiple local departments.
“While I was volunteering I saw a real need for innovation in the space,” Wish said. “The tools and materials that the first responders had at their fingertips was not working.”
Many of the firm’s portfolio companies — like Ten8Tech and Kaseware — were founded by former law enforcement officials who had ideas for new technology while on the job.
Beyond FirstNet, the public safety space is seeing some rapid innovation push its way into the market. Predictive policing companies are using artificial intelligence in an attempt to change the way departments deploy officers. Body camera companies are looking at ways to process and recognize objects in body camera videos to, among other things, make them searchable. Next-generation 911 systems are springing up across the country, allowing dispatch systems to interact with citizens in new ways. Fire and police departments are starting to use drones. Computers are scanning social media for early signs of emergencies. Et cetera.
And that’s all great, said Wish, but there’s also a lot of things technology can do on a more mundane level to simply make law enforcement more efficient.
“What we’re supporting is a little bit simpler stuff,” he said. “There’s a little more catch-up to be done.”
For example, Responder portfolio company RapidSOS offers a service that delivers specific location to dispatchers from callers’ mobile phones so that emergency responders can find the places they need to be more quickly instead of driving in circles. SceneDoc, another portfolio company, offers a mobile platform for collecting and managing evidence and other data, automating manual tasks in the process.
“SceneDoc is automating and it’s saving hours for people every single shift,” Wish said. “The hours they’d spend doing paperwork, now they’re in the field.”
By getting in and investing in these companies early and building out a network of advisers and partners in the process, Wish thinks Responder can take advantage of the momentum in the sector as a whole.
“We’re pretty focused on the nuts-and-bolts stuff," he said, "because that’s gonna have a big impact over the next five years."
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.