Boulder already had a university, a lot of business accelerators and an ecosystem of tech startups. Now, the city’s chief innovation and analytics officer hopes to bring those things in line so they can help the municipal government.
The city is one of 12 that will participate in the 2018 Startup in Residence (STiR) cohort as part of the program’s first national expansion.
Julia Richman was hired by Boulder in early 2017 after nearly a decade with Deloitte Consulting, coming aboard in part to help the local government there leverage the skills of the entrepreneurial community in order to improve the services it provides citizens. At that time, STiR was still limited to Northern California, as it had been since it began in San Francisco in 2014. However, when Richman became aware of national expansion plans soon after going to work for Boulder, she found STiR immediately enticing. It was directly in line with her new position’s goals and objectives, she said.
“We had been endeavoring into this concept out of the STiR program in anticipation that it was going to be made available to external participants this fall,” Richman said. “This kind of work is really a core part of our innovation architecture.”
STiR’s goal is outwardly simple: Facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between tech startups and local governments, thereby helping the companies to get a foothold in a relatively undertapped gov tech market while at the same time giving government access to new tools it needs to overcome old challenges. To accomplish that, STiR plays matchmaker and embeds tech startups within public agencies.
It’s not as simple as it sounds. Many American cities seek to do a better job helping startups break into gov tech by overcoming near-universal obstacles such as a lengthy and complex procurement process, legacy systems and shrinking budgets. Some cities, like Boulder, have a wealth of homegrown startup talent, and all they need is a bridge to get them into government work.
One of Richman’s chief hopes for participating is that STiR will be this bridge for Boulder, which has a thriving startup ecosystem, complete with academic resources from the University of Colorado Boulder, as well as a whopping 18 accelerators and incubators. While San Antonio shied away from STiR out of concern that its startup culture was not yet robust enough to truly benefit, Boulder does not have this hang-up. Richman also said she expects Boulder’s size, economy and geography to be enticing for entrepreneurs.
“We have a ton of different assets,” Richman said. “We have a lot of people and we have data, buses, roads, you name it. For a startup looking for a data test site or to get a plug into bigger infrastructure than the little test environment they’ve built in someone’s garage, we can enable that and help them understand the use of their own tool.”
In addition to Boulder, this new class of national participants includes Houston, Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; and Washington, D.C. It also includes six jurisdictions in California — San Francisco, Santa Cruz County, Santa Monica, Vallejo, Walnut Creek and West Sacramento — and one public agency, the San Francisco region’s Municipal Transportation Commission. Companies can apply to the program until Jan. 1.
Aside from the tangible tech results, Richman also hopes that infusing the local government with startup ethos will enable experimentation and a culture shift toward flexibility — that it’s okay if a project doesn’t turn out exactly as planned.
“The notion that governments are ever going to be leading edge is just kind of a false narrative,” Richman said. “But the concept that governments can be prepared to be adapters of technology and keep pace with technology is where I think startups can help.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.