Startup America feels a little gimmicky. Many of the obvious things that entrepreneurs or companies might want are not going to happen through Startup America because these things are not under the President’s control. For example, one idea would be funding for entrepreneurs. While the Administration may be able to move around funds a little bit, Congress is not going to allocate any significant additional funds given our budget situation and divided government, and in any event, many reasonable people would disagree with the idea of or need for a government venture fund. Others such as changes in immigration laws are also a matter for Congress and the high-tech community has made its position known long before Startup America.
Here are some thoughts on how the Administration and Startup America can actually take concrete steps to stimulate entrepreneurship by providing entrepreneurs market intelligence and raw materials for entrepreneurial ideas.
First, take advantage of the reach of the federal government as an issue/trend spotting system. The federal government reaches into every sector of our economy and every corner of our country. Create a system to funnel up issues that government agencies are running into or trends they see. This could be anything from difficulty in procuring a certain type of product, issues with providing IT support to employees, an explosion in data storage needs, or an increase in complaints about a certain type of business. I’m limited by my lack of imagination, but I am sure that there are a range of funky issues that government employees and agencies run into. Chances are these will also reflect issues in the private sector. By having a list of these trends, it creates an “X prize” type competitive atmosphere without the government having to put up prize money. The opportunity itself is the prize. The government’s experience itself can validate a potential market opportunity giving the entrepreneur something to work on and potential investors some data that the market is real given the market intelligence from the government’s experience.
Second, concentrate on and accelerate the release of government data sets. This was an idea trumpeted by the Administration early on, but focus seems to have drifted and data.gov (the central repository) is not very impressive. Data sets do two things. One, they lend themselves to the creation of apps or other innovations to manipulate and present the data, which in themselves can be very valuable. Two, and tied to the issue/trend spotting point, they help both entrepreneurs and investors find potential market opportunities and/or test hypotheses.
Third, there is already a lot of data on different agency websites that could empower developers to provide the data in a much more useful way to the American public. For example, the DOJ or FTC website has critical information for lawyers and citizens regarding precedent in different areas, but it is too cumbersome to find and manipulate this information efficiently. (It appears that some agencies like the FCC have already started doing this, which begs the question of what the excuse is that it isn’t being done more comprehensively.) There is utility regardless of the type of government agency. For example, imagine what types of beautiful apps would spring up if developers could access the pictures and descriptions of the Smithsonian collection that are already on the Smithsonian website. Startup America should work with agencies to implement these APIs, because this would release a great amount of source material for innovative entrepreneurial projects.