This is Part II of Data-Smart City Solutions’ New Faces of Public-Private Collaboration series.
To many, distressed properties are a sign of urban decay, a telling symbol of the downfall of a once-great city. But to Alexander Kapur, they represent an opportunity.
Kapur is the CEO of Opportunity Space, a startup that brings the public and private sectors together to spur reinvestment and redevelopment in typically distressed land and buildings. His company’s product is a two-sided online platform that allows the government holders of real estate to list information about their holdings — which can then be accessed and explored by potential private and civic sector investors.
After wrapping up a pilot program in two geographic markets (Louisville, Ky., and New England), Opportunity Space is moving quickly ahead. Kapur says his company has received expressions of interest from about 35 government entitles, which include cities, counties, neighborhoods, transit authorities, and special districts. By spring, he hopes to have 20 government partners online.
Kapur is among a growing number of founders who are starting tech companies aimed at improving government. To learn more about his experiences in this evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem, Data-Smart City Solutions recently got on the phone with Kapur for a wide-ranging conversation about the sector’s greatest challenges and opportunities.
Data-Smart City Solutions: How do you think this new wave of govtech-focused startups is changing the way governments serve their citizens?
Alexander Kapur: This is definitely a new way of government-citizen interaction, and there are so many enablers out there. We’re seeing a number of new capital sources, even traditional companies like Microsoft and Google that want to be supportive of these types of innovations, and even large investment houses in New York that want to take risks and enable smaller companies to interact with governments. At the same time, I think there’s a lot of milestones ahead, like procurement reform, innovation pathways, and the challenge of managing multiple buyers that are sometimes political in nature.
What have you found to be the most rewarding part of working with local governments?
Observing this wave of change and the embrace of new tools and new devices is really rewarding to watch. It’s also rewarding to watch this mindshift in government that is allowing us, a small company, to better influence the way that a large institution handles policies and processes and procedure.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge in working with cities and local governments?
I think the timeline for an engagement decision is challenging, especially for a startup. Another challenge lies in getting alignment among multiple buyers within a city. In our case, for example, the economic development and planning departments might be fully supportive of our solution, but the treasurer or the council might not be. These are all stakeholders in development decisions, but they just might not be aligned in terms of solution.
What advice would you give to a local government official that wants to work effectively with emerging startups?
I think Kansas City, Mo., did something really smart. They have a particular pathway and a structure for inviting and testing innovations in their city. Ashley Hand, who’s the Chief Innovation Officer there, has put together a program that is basically a welcome mat for innovation and it gives startups a very clear pathway with very clear decision-making processes and timelines. There’s also an internal champion, like a shepherd or a sherpa, to help guide you through the interaction. Philadelphia similarly hosts a program named FastFWD to support the city's consideration of new innovations, and it's well-known that Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics actively works with start-up leadership to help approach various departments and agencies.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.