Taking the stage on an electric one-wheeled skateboard, Shaun Abrahamson evangelized about the “the valley of death,” unicorns and the dangers of dystopian futures.
Far from a holy roller, the civic tech investor’s talk was a prelude to the 2015 Smartcity Startups Summit, held in Miami April 23-24, that was designed to connect promising tech startups — affectionately dubbed “unicorns” — to investors. The gathering also gave entrepreneurs advice on how to stay in business during the time between a startup’s conception and investor backing, sometimes referred to as the "valley of death."
Abrahamson, founder of the civic tech investment group Urban.us, which organized the event, jumpstarted happenings by pointing to societal catalysts for change. He spoke of global warming’s rising waters, the frustrations of traffic, and the heavy impact of poverty on the world’s swelling populations.
“The biggest issue I think we have, is not whether these [societal problems] are true — or that they’re actual challenges — but the perception that [civic tech startups] could make a huge difference,” said Abrahamson.
On the first day, the summit ran a mix of panels, workshops and founder stories. Dozens of Silicon Valley talent joined to deliver industry advice. These included juggernauts like Google and Microsoft, but also civic tech philanthropies, including the Knight Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to the sector, and notable urban investment groups like the Omidyar Network.
Below are a few major takeaways from day one:
Whether it was charting parcel information from companies such as Loveland or installing smart benches from Soofa, the number and quality of civic tech startups didn’t disappoint. There were a total of 66 and a demo area highlighting a wealth of head-turning inventions.
One standout was Ohmconnect. The San Francisco-based startup has engineered an app that pays users to reduce electricity. Partnering with power providers for energy metrics, the app allows residents to sell electricity back to the grid when they conserve. The process works by notifying users when rates spike due to high demand, and after residents respond with lower usage, such as turning off a light, the app calculates earnings by the amount of energy savings.
Co-Founders Matt Duesterberg and Curtis Tongue estimate residents can earn about $100 to $150 per year — not including the savings generated from general conservation efficiencies gained form the app’s energy analytics dashboard. Free to use and without a need for hardware, the app is already available in various municipalities in California, and the company hopes to scale itself to other states soon.
Another notable startup, NextRequests takes the unwieldy — and often jumbled — process of public information requests and simplifies it with a dashboard to manage both public requests and the documents themselves. The cloud service platform eliminates duplicate requests and also provides insights with analytics and searchable content.
Equally useful, MeWe is a Web and mobile app for city permitting inspections. The app streamlines jobs like food and building inspections through a checklist that inspectors can just tap and send. Manik Suri, the startup’s CEO, said cities can import raw data — such as property locations — into the app, schedule their inspections and then analyze reports in a single data base. Photos, videos and notes are other helpful features.
The summit's first day ended with a panel of investors and mobility startups discussing the future of transit. Startups and investors shared opinions on transit policy, innovation success metrics, and the interdependent tension between government planning and private-sector ingenuity. Panelists discussed their frustrations with procurement constraints and an indifference from policymakers to act on innovative technologies.
On the brighter side, panelists shared views on convenience, transportation choice, affordability, consumer satisfaction, and how these trends can deliver benefits to society. Sabrina Sussman, a vice president at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, underscored transportation as the second-costliest expense to Americans other than housing. Independence from car ownership and more transit options, she argued, would logically translate into lower living expenses as citizens lived farther away from work — and in cheaper housing.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.