Start-up accelerator 1776’s DC location shows independent, revolutionary side

People were surprised when 1776 based in Washington but now it seems logical

President  Obama launched the last July 4th holiday at the office of technology start-up hub 1776. Photograph: Martin H Simon-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama launched the last July 4th holiday at the office of technology start-up hub 1776. Photograph: Martin H Simon-Pool/Getty Images

 

Name a Washington DC-based start-up accelerator “1776” and people will think, “I see what you did there.”

Washington is, of course, the US capital, and 1776 is the year associated with the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Revolutionary, independent-thinking, willing to plunge into a daunting challenge: serial entrepreneurs Evan Burfield and Donna Harris, 1776’s founders, can work the associations in a number of snappy ways. Their tagline is: “Where revolutions begin.”

And their goal is to support start-ups tackling very big problems in very big sectors such as education, health, energy and big cities.

But those within the wider technology industry might see 1776 (1776dc.com) itself as revolutionary, simply for deciding to place a technology accelerator in a location associated more with industry lobbying than industry innovation.

“People inside the city just didn’t think of DC as a start-up city,” says Burfield, on the phone from 1776’s offices two blocks over from the White House. And people outside didn’t, either.

But give the idea some thought and it not only makes sense, but seems so obvious you wonder why it didn’t happen before.

Politically astute

This is, after all, a seat of government where policy decisions affect not just US citizens but the whole world. And it’s where billions in funding is earmarked annually for federal, state and international projects and programmes, often to address big, thorny, complicated issues. Most require technological innovation.

But for a start-up or young, small company, figuring out how to navigate the biggest of Big Governments, and massive industrial sectors, is daunting.

“These are complex industries and very regulated. You have to really understand how you map out a company or a project,” he says.

And, he notes, there are no longer any obvious or easy problems to resolve. “The internet has already eaten all the low-hanging fruit. If you’re Uber, and you want to solve problems in the taxi industry, you’re right in the heart of a complex, highly regulated industry.

“Or, say, if Amazon wants to use drones to deliver packages – you’re again dealing with the highly regulated aerospace area, plus doing something that is new and controversial.

“The next wave of innovation is such that the old libertarian ethos that says, ‘we’ll just put our technology out there and it will win because it’s good’, will not work.”

These days, Washington is also a good place to meet leading technology figures, Burfield says. As technology companies have grown more politically astute, company leaders and other tech power-brokers are regularly in the city.

And, he adds, “DC has the highest density of technology workers in the United States. More than Silicon Valley.”

That’s because so many tech-saturated industries, notably security and defence, are based in the region.

As troops have been removed from Iraq and war funding has declined, more money is now available for other applications of technology, he says.

And there is apparently plenty of venture money around, too. On a list of top locations for angel investor capital, Washington DC comes fourth, trailing only Silicon Valley, New York and Los Angeles, says Burfield.

“Clearly there’s a marketing problem there,” he says, given that so few are aware of such facts.

Plenty of visitors

And that’s where he sees 1776 performing a vital function.

The accelerator certainly seemed to meet a revolution waiting to happen. Within the first months of operations – and it is only 18 months old – 1776 had 500 applications from companies within the greater DC area.

“So clearly, there were lots of start-ups already in the region,” Burfield says.

The company also wanted to provide a hub where start-ups from anywhere in the world could connect into business opportunities in the area.

To that end, they have 240 companies in their incubation programme, of which 150 are in the DC region and the rest from across the globe.

They have offices across two floors of a building, which provide an incubator home to a number of companies, as well as space for regular weekly events.

And they host plenty of visitors. About 2,000 month come through their doors, ranging from venture capitalists, foreign ministers, students, businesses, “and four or five groups from Ireland” – to President Obama, who launched the last July 4th holiday there.

And 1776 also host an international start-up competition called the Challenge Cup, aimed at selecting and funding top start-ups solving problems in education, energy, health and cities – which will come to Ireland in late February of 2015.

“The Challenge Cup is really almost a global accelerator programme,” Burfield says.

It takes place in 16 cities in 11 countries, where they spend time “engaging with stakeholders, like utilities, hospitals, universities and incubators. Then we spend two days with start-ups and select four finalists. We bring the finalists to Washington, as well as 16 wild-card choices from the other companies we saw. And we invest in the top eight.”

One-minute pitch

In each country, about 40 start-ups present a one-minute pitch. Eight move on to a five-minute pitch round and four finalists win a free trip to Washington for the global finals. Over $650,000 in prizes are awarded.

This is the second year of the cup, with Dublin replacing London in the competition this year. Why Dublin?

Burfield visited here when he was over for last year’s London event and says he was “very impressed by the energy and growth.

“I was also impressed by the number of start-ups squarely in our industries. Irish start-ups are not just about the next dating or photo app.” The competition is on February 27th, 2015, at the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) in Dublin. More information on challengecup.1776dc.com

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