Can These Entrepreneurs Solve The Intractable Problems Of City Government?

San Francisco’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence is working with startups to help use their skills to help the public sector get a little better at technology.

Can These Entrepreneurs Solve The Intractable Problems Of City Government?
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In case the recent Obamacare debacle didn’t make it clear enough, the government has some serious problems getting technology to work correctly. This is something that President Obama has recognized in the past. In July, he made this statement: “I’m going to be asking more people around the country–more inventors and entrepreneurs and visionaries–to sign up to serve. We’ve got to have the brightest minds to help solve our biggest challenges.”


In San Francisco, that request has been taken on by the newly minted Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program–the first ever government-run program that helps startups to develop technologies that can be used to deal with pressing government issues. It’s kind of like a government startup incubator. This week, the EIR program announced 11 finalists for the program, which received 200 applications from startups across the world. Three to five startups will ultimately be chosen for the opportunity.

Rahul Mewawalla, an entrepreneur who has also worked at big companies like Nokia and Comcast, took on a role as Senior Advisor to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Innovation after a stint working with the White House.

“The idea was to get someone like me [from the private sector], and pair me with Mayor Lee in San Francisco to see what could come together,” he says. “One thing we realized is that as you think about government, it has a number of pain points–health care, energy, conservation, public safety. We thought, ‘Let’s bring in startups that historically focused on the private sector into the public sector–to have the FedEx’s and Walmarts of the world give help to public transit.'”

The 11 finalists range from small startups with just a handful of people doing cutting-edge work to companies valued at over $1 billion. Some of the highlights:

  • Arrive Labs, a company that crowdsources public transit data and combines it with algorithms and external conditions (like the weather) to predict congestion, and to offer riders faster alternatives.
  • A startup called Regroup that offers group messaging through a number of channels, including email, text, Facebook, Twitter, and digital signs.
  • Smart waste management company Compology, which is working on a wireless waste monitoring system to tell officials what’s inside city dumpsters and when they are full.
  • Birdi, a startup developing smart air quality, carbon monoxide, and smoke detectors that send alerts to your smartphone. The company also has an open API so that developers can pull in public outdoor air quality data.
  • Synthicity’s 3-D digital city simulation (think “real-life Simcity”), which is based on urban datasets. The simulation is geared towards transportation planners, urban designers, and others who rely on city data to make decisions.

Mewawalla says the EIR program used three main criteria in selecting startups: quality of the team, uniqueness of the product, and applicability for the product in cities across the country (and the world). Each company needed to pitch a product that would lower the cost of government, increase government revenue or help save lives. The startups that are selected will go through a 16-week program in early 2014, partnering with relevant government agencies to get feedback, incorporate it into their products, do pilot testing, and check out how their products operate at scale.

One big challenge for the startups will be making sure that they focus on problems considered to be high priority. “The challenge for government is that there are always a number of things that require our attention,” says Mewawalla. If any of the startups are successful, they could be handsomely rewarded: government spending is 40% of the GDP.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.