Entrepreneurs and highly regulated sectors don’t always mix well. As Uber and Airbnb will tell you, some industries are just harder to disrupt than others. Health, education, transportation, energy, and government – the opportunities for innovators are immense, but so is the red tape.
There’s one city in the US that believes it can help startups make a difference in those areas, that it can help entrepreneurs navigate complicated mazes of regulation, that it can help innovators and government speak the same language. That city is Washington DC, and it’s about to get a startup-dedicated campus that aims to help grow and nourish a network that will help startups the world over. It will serve as everything from an education zone to an events space to a coworking area to an accelerator.
Billing itself as a “major initiative focused on helping entrepreneurs seeking to solve the country’s biggest problems,” 1776 will be announced on Wednesday by Washington DC Mayor Vince Gray, with Startup America Partnership CEO Scott Case in attendance. Situated a few blocks from the White House, the campus – or “platform,” as they’re tentatively calling it – is being led by Startup DC chair Evan Burfield and Donna Harris, who will be transitioning into the role from her current position as managing director of Startup America .
“We want to help as many startups around the world do whatever important work they were already doing that DC can really help them with,” says Burfield. The campus will help startups tap into the DC community’s ties to government, the Administration, contractors, nonprofits, lobbyists, investors, and companies that are accustomed to working within highly regulated industries, which together account for more than 40 percent of the US’s GDP.
The campus – which will operate with a hybrid model similar to that used by General Assembly, Chicago’s 1871, and Google’s London-based Campus – is supported by a yet-to-be-disclosed grant from the city of Washington DC. It will also support itself with membership fees paid by startups and entrepreneurs who choose to work out of its expansive ninth-floor office space in the heart of DC.
The campus also occupies the eighth floor of the building, which is currently being used as an ad-hoc coworking space for early-stage companies. It will open the warehouse-like ninth-floor space in early March, which, when fully renovated, will have room to accommodate 160 people at desks at any one time. Despite early doubts about whether or not DC’s startup community would have the capacity to sustain such an ambitious initiative, Burfield says more than 70 percent of reserved memberships are already accounted for.
Harris says she has seen plenty of great innovative ideas from startups around the country that are unfamiliar with the regulatory landscapes of many industries such as health, energy, and education. 1776 – named for the year the Declaration of Independence was signed – can connect help connect them to sorts of political, intellectual, social, and financial capital that are unique to DC. “These are dots that have never been connected before,” she says.
The campus arrives at a time when Washington DC is likely about to go through some painful changes in the government sector and its related industries. President Obama has signalled budget cuts in healthcare, clean-tech, forestry, energy assistance programs, and defense that will likely cost thousands of jobs, many of those in tech-related fields. The budget changes could create opportunities for startups, which can compete on price and technology, and free up talent that will be looking for new livelihoods.
“It’s an ambitious initiative,” says Dan Berger, CEO of Social Tables, a startup that is already working from 1776’s premises. “Now is the time for DC. We need ambitious initiatives to develop what we have going on here, and also to signal to the rest of the world that DC is serious.”
[Illustration by Aleks Sennwald for PandoDaily]