Spilka: Challenge Startups, Cities to Innovate

Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka discussed her Innovative Communities proposal that aims to connect municipalities to startups in the tech sector

In an interview with Gov1, Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka discussed her recent Innovative Communities legislative proposal that aims to better connect municipalities to startups in the tech sector.

The Inspiration

Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka was the chair of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee a few years ago, which enabled her to work directly with both the tech and biotech sectors throughout the state. When speaking and meeting with technology businesses – both big and small- Spilka realized there was an opportunity to bridge communications between the tech sector, including startups, and legislators in the state house.

“About 18 months ago, I founded the Tech Hub Caucus to bring together the tech community and municipal leaders,” Spilka told Gov1. “Many technology companies and startups felt government played no role in their business, which is not the case.”

According to Spilka, many technology companies rely on state and municipal governments to:

  • Educate the workforce
  • Provide transit to and from jobs
  • Foster the ease of business growth and development
  • Establish and evolve regulations and tax policies

Spilka realized many members of the tech sector do not know where to start in obtaining contracts with local governments or developing solutions to solve municipal problems. Likewise, many cities have limited resources and are hesitant to invest in startup technologies without a buffer to reduce the risks.

The Idea-A-Thon

The Tech Hub Caucus started to meet monthly to discuss policies and issues facing the tech community, and brainstorm programs to address these concerns as well as make our municipalities more tech-savvy. But Spilka felt more could be done.

“I had seen how hack-a-thons in other cities had helped agencies gather tech experts to come up with a number of solutions to a specific problem,” Spilka explained. “Why can’t we do that for the state government issue?”

So in November, Spilka brought in the startup and tech community and asked them to list their pain points in job creation and business development. They were then tasked with outlining ideas for how the state and local government in Massachusetts could alleviate these burdens and enable them to thrive in-state. They called it an idea-a-thon.

The event generated a strong response, teams of tech experts came up with 13 major ideas and problems requiring innovative solutions. A panel of 7 celebrity judges from the business, local government, venture capitalist and tech sectors chose the winning idea.

“The prize was a promise from me that the winning idea would be transferred into a bill that I would file in January 2015, and then work with the startup and tech community to get it passed in the legislature,” Spilka told Gov1.

The Bill

Spilka filed the Innovative Communities proposal based on the idea-a-thon’s winning idea: finding a solution to make it easier for the tech community to collaborate with municipal and state governments. The goal of the legislation is make it easier for municipal governments to find tech companies and solutions to contract with, while simplifying the procurement process for tech startups and small companies.

“The purchasing process can be difficult to understand and navigate,” Spilka explained. “It is easier for larger tech companies to acquire municipal contracts because they have more manpower and resources, as well as stronger reputations, than startups and small companies. The bill is designed to help municipalities become more efficient through innovative solutions, as well as help the startup community gain opportunities and thrive.”

The Innovative Communities Program offers four main components to tech businesses and municipalities alike:

  • Education: The program would educate both startups and municipalities on how to improve communication and create business relationships. Startups would learn more about the procurement process and how to sell to local governments. Municipalities would gain greater understanding of what is allowed under current procurement laws. The program would outline a procurement roadmap so both parties can take advantage of existing and new opportunities.
  • Connectivity: The program would connect startups and municipalities through a type of matchmaking process. The program would hold tech events and exposition statewide, as well as competitions where the tech community could showcase their solutions specifically designed to meet the needs of local governments. Municipalities would attend these events, share their problems and seek out solutions to help better serve residents and use resources more efficiently.
  • Piloting and Technical Assistance: The program would also create a support system for the most promising ideas showcased at the tech events and expositions. There would be a fast track initiative for smaller projects under $10,000 to be tested and implemented in municipalities faster and more efficiently.
  • Evaluation: The state government would deploy a prequalification process for the startup companies that would fully vet their business plans and capabilities. This would enable faster contracting with local governments and reduce risk for municipal leaders. At the end of each event, there would be another evaluation to determine how to improve in the future.

“This bill will be a great way to send a message to the startup and tech community that the state of Massachusetts is reaching out, and wants to engage and invest in the industry,” Spilka told Gov1.

Furthermore, the program would help municipal governments find immediate solutions to boost efficiency, cost-savings and overall performance. In the long term, Spilka foresees the badge of “Innovative Community” marking a status achievement that communities throughout the state could strive toward.

“As time goes on, we hope to attach some grants to the Innovative Community Program so qualified municipalities could receive extra funding for participation and continued support in the use of innovative technology to solve civic solutions,” Spilka explained. “Once you have a program in place that addresses a civic problem, coupled with assistance from startups and municipal leaders, the possibilities are endless.”

Always Innovating

Gov1 has followed a consistent growth in innovation policy and investment across the country, as more cities realize the economic value of attracting and supporting growth industries.

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