Every startup wants to change the world, but DC-based incubator and seed fund1776fosters the type of early stage companies that just might have a chance.
The incubator is focused specifically on startups for the public good. You won’t find any benign photo sharing apps in 1776’s portfolio.
Instead, the incubator is looking for the next solution to traffic gridlock, or a breakthrough in testing water for unsafe chemicals.
The fund has helped launch companies like a data-driven service that helps obstetricians identify high-risk pregnancies, an app that uses crowdfunding to help raise money for teachers, and more.
These aren’t the glamorous startups depicted in films like “The Social Network,” but 1776 co-founders Evan Burfield and Donna Harris are confident the long-term impact these companies can have on society is potentially greater and just as monetizable.
In under two years, 1776 has fostered over 250 startups in broken, entrenched industries like education, energy and sustainability, healthcare, city planning, and transportation.
1776 provides office space, funding, and crucial connections to the fledgling companies, many of which must overcome immense bureaucratic and legislative hurdles to achieve success.
The incubator helps startups tackle these roadblocks by connecting founders with a “swat team” of support, including access over 2,000 lobbyists, public affairs gurus, and specialists who are focused on helping the company realise its vision.
“There’s a dark arts of public affairs that every major big corporation uses,” Evan Burfield says. “They all have a group of people who shape the rules, get around the rules, but most startups never have access to that.”
He explains that 1776 uses what they call “regulatory hacking” to help startups navigate “markets that don’t like to move.”
“If you’re going to fix the world you’re going to have to figure out how to figure out all this crap,” Burfield says of complicated regulation and procedures.
He explains that it’s not about blatantly ignoring what you might consider “bad legislation” and charging through no matter what. Many companies aren’t able to buck the rules without getting shut down. Instead, it’s important for startups to be able to deftly navigate murky legal waters in order to scale.
For many startups in highly-regulated industries, it’s not just about understanding the laws, it’s about having access to connections that are able to shape them. Consequentially, 1776 benefits greatly from being in DC, where legislative connections run deep.
Industry connections are also important. A startup could have a groundbreaking idea for a medical device application, for example, but if the company can’t get its technology adopted within a network of hospital systems, their innovation could be fruitless.
Take startup 1EQ, for example. Early last year the startup entered the 1776 incubator program with a vision for how the internet of things would transform healthcare, but was having trouble getting off the ground. Rather than allow the company to waste more time painfully pitching its product to antiquated hospital boards, 1776 hooked 1EQ up with several prominent hospital groups to accelerate their beta testing process.
1EQ ended up refining its service, and in late 2014, announced a major pilot for its first product, BabyScripts, with MedStar, a non-profit healthcare organisation that operates more than 120 hospitals.
BabyScripts now allows obstetricians to provide expectant mothers with a wireless blood pressure cuff, wireless scale, and an app to guide expectant mothers through their pregnancy. BabyScripts then sends data back to the mother’s obstetrician so they can identify signs of high-risk pregnancy.
Burfield says healthcare is 1776’s single most active vertical and he sees enormous potential in the market, though they also make significant investments in many startups tackling education. And though 1776 is based in downtown Washington DC, its investments aren’t limited by geographic area.
The incubator hosts a global competition called the “Challenge Cup,” where Burfield and Harris scout promising companies to bring into their fold.
The competition takes place in 16 cities around the globe and winners from each city are brought to participate in 1776’s Challenge Festival, a weeklong competition in May that gives the startups an opportunity to pitch investors, meet with policymakers, and compete for funding.
So what kind of startup catches Burfield’s eye?
“We don’t do a lot for fashion startups,” he says. “But we’re pretty open.”