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UrbanLeap Launches in Larger Cities, Plans Expansion

The company, which offers a platform for government to systematically try out new technology and ideas, has launched in pilot-happy Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and San Mateo County, Calif. It's also working to double its team.

UrbanLeap, a young startup offering software to help government run pilot projects to test out new technology and ideas, is starting off running in the new year.

The company, which was already working with several cities, has nabbed three big customers recently: PGH Lab in Pittsburgh, SMC Labs in San Mateo County, Calif., and the city of Las Vegas.

The most significant of these is Las Vegas, whose Information Technologies Department just signed a year-long contract with UrbanLeap. Las Vegas has been one of the most active cities in the country recently when it comes to technology pilot projects; department Director Michael Sherwood said there are more than 100 such efforts underway at the moment.

Las Vegas has been especially active with pilot projects since its city council created an “innovation district” downtown in 2016. Since then, it’s run one of the nation’s first self-driving shuttle tests, has tried out pedestrian counters, connected vehicle technology, tools to deliver situational awareness for public safety officials and more.

“It’s about maximizing our resources,” Sherwood said. “So how can we use technology to improve outcomes for the community and lower our operating costs?”

PGH Lab first started working with UrbanLeap about a year ago, while SMC Labs has been using the software for roughly six months. PGH Lab is more oriented toward solutions that work in the community, as opposed to technology that the government itself would use, while SMC Labs is all about San Mateo County’s drive to become a “smart region” where nearby cities and counties work together on innovative new ideas.

Aside from their respective pushes to try out new technology, there’s something that Sherwood has in common with Ulysses Vinson, San Mateo County’s chief smart communities officer: spreadsheets.

“I literally had everything on a spreadsheet,” Vinson said. “That was the only way I was able to keep track of all the vendors.”

Before UrbanLeap, spreadsheets were a primary mechanism for tracking pilot projects and vendor relationships for both. But spreadsheets are inelegant; they’re functionally limited, work-intensive and can become unwieldy once projects reach a certain scale.

That's exactly what happened for Vinson. There were some 100 rows in his spreadsheet by the time he started using UrbanLeap. He’s still importing all that data into the new software.

But what used to be manual data entry has become a contact form on SMC Labs’ website. Now if Vinson meets a company interested in working with the county, he simply gives them his card and tells them to go to the website to fill out the form.

Annia Aleman, senior civic innovation specialist with the city of Pittsburgh who manages PGH Lab, said having UrbanLeap as a one-stop shop for tracking projects has saved a lot of time.

"There was a lot of manual work,” she said. “I'm the manager of the program so I was sending out ... surveys and things like that that were from my own internal databases and SharePoint and things like that."

It also makes the process of sharing information with people much easier, she said. If somebody wants a report on how a pilot project is going, they can go into UrbanLeap and see for themselves.

Looking forward, the company will be growing in other ways in 2019 as well. Arik Bronshtein, UrbanLeap’s CEO, said the company raised a pre-seed funding round of about $1 million in April 2017 — mostly from Lool Ventures and former Accela CEO Maury Blackman — and is planning on doubling its employee count from six to 12.

Bronshtein also sees an opportunity in one of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first moves since he took office: an executive order creating a new pathway for state agencies to procure technology using more modern methods. The order outlines a way for agencies to issue a challenge to vendors, then test the solutions those vendors bring forward before picking them. The traditional method of public procurement is for an agency to outline what it needs from software, then ask vendors to submit proposals and score them based on a rubric.

It would be a bit of a change for UrbanLeap — they’ve been focused on local government customers thus far, and work on pilot projects rather than mainline tech procurement — but the CEO thinks the new paradigm looks welcoming.

"Building together with the private sector, solutions that truly meet the government's needs and testing them through demonstration projects will save time and money in the long run and will provide better solutions for the benefit of the citizens," Bronshtein wrote in an email. "I hope other government agencies will follow this initiative, like earlier executive orders that came from California's governor's office."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.