The Perfect Pair: When Startups and Government Thrive Together

By Betsy Gardner • June 28, 2019

Tech startups and the government may seem as diametrically opposed as legacy institutions and fast-moving disruptors can be, but opposites attract for a reason. In 2013 San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath united the two through the city’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, and that pairing has escalated into nearly 100 creative, symbiotic relationships across North America. Now called Startup in Residence (STiR), the program has successfully matched local, state, and regional government partners with young startups eager to apply their tech talents to the civic landscape. Governments without innovation teams, or those that are eager to include more data and technology, have the chance to bring in assistance on a project basis through STiR.

In 2017 the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing & Community Development submitted a challenge to STiR to see if a startup partner could help the department choose land for affordable housing. UrbanSim is a simulation platform that uses open data and 3D visualizations to help users develop and analyze alternative planning and development scenarios. The two matched, and during the 16 week residency UrbanSim designed a tool called Penciler that quickly analyzes the feasibility of turning certain properties into affordable housing units, allowing staff to quickly evaluate if a land parcel or building is suitable for development.

Simple computer simulation of a land parcel

Computer simulation of a building in San Francisco with info about density and units
Examples of a proposed San Francisco development being evaluated in Penciler.


Over 20 government partners from across the U.S. and Canada have signed up to bring their local, regional, and state challenges to STiR; issues can be related to mobility, civic engagement, resiliency, the Internet of Things, and process improvement. Once STiR has helped source these challenges and received commitments that each department has a dedicated project manager, chief support, and a budget, applications will go live and startups around the world can apply to work on any of them. The 16 week residency is almost entirely remote, so the startup pool is broad and applicants can apply to more than one. Once the government partner selects which team to work with, they prepare a Scope of Work with the startup prior to the residency. The residency is structured in four week increments to do user research, design, building, and testing. At the end of the 16 weeks there are both local and national demo days; this is also the point where successful projects enter the negotiation phase.

STiR Process: Source, Apply, Scope of work, Residency, and ContractThe startups aren’t compensated during the project, and while there is no guarantee from STiR or the government department, most challenges have successfully ended in contracts. The program creates a win-win-win environment by incentivizing startups with the potential for a government contract, giving government departments access to ti, innovative ideas and tools, and ultimately benefiting the communities where the challenges are being solved.

For example, the City of San Leandro’s Recreation and Human Services (RHS) Department wanted to improve their enrollment system, since the platform didn’t provide the key metrics that RHS needed for budgeting and planning. The department serves approximately 90,000 residents each year and manages different 40 facilities; wanting to increase community engagement and make better programmatic decisions, the city knew it would need improved insight through data analytics.

They selected the startup LotaData as part of the 2016 cohort, and together RHS and LotaData chose relevant data and began to collect it. The startup team reviewed registration information and program enrollments, plus looked into the revenue for RHS. They also looked beyond the city’s own data and included census tract and community survey information. Using this information, LotaData built a mapping and dashboarding “People Intelligence” platform for the city’s parks and facilities to track engagement, visitor demographics, and revenue. With this geo-dashboard the Recreation and Human Services Department was able to optimize and best allocate spending, improve park services, and tailor programming to community interests. The San Leandro RHS Director Jeanette Dong stated that “LotaData revolutionized our ability to receive, analyze and project our program data and will shift our operational paradigm.” The experience struck a chord for LotaData, who now considers the public sector an important part of itsmission.

The STiR Playbook provides information for any governments that are interested in setting up the program. And any entrepreneurs who are interested in the civic tech space can get involved by registering their interest for a future cohort. In bringing their individual strengths together, government and startups can create impactful change for residents.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.