FastFWD is a new civic accelerator, backed by the City of Philadelphia, GoodCompany Group (a startup accelerator) and Wharton Business School. Notably, FastFWD is focused on for-profit ventures, with the goal of longevity making for a refreshing take on the civic startup space which is too often defined by the whimsy of one off hackathons and novelty apps.
“FastFWD came about as part of Philadelphia’s application to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge,” Story Bellows, Co-Director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics for the City of Philadelphia, tells CivSource. “We thought it would be great to open up city government and work through some of the challenges we face every day. We’ve been working to refine the concept ever since.”
Philadelphia won funding from the Mayor’s Challenge for this work, making the concept for FastFWD the first-of-its-kind public private partnership funded entirely by private money the city won in a national ideas competition. The concept puts the focus on solving the meatier problems of civic life, backed by for-profit technology companies that will have to road test, prove concept, and find additional funding based on performance.
“We’ve seen immense value from the culture change efforts of Code for America, but we wanted to do for-profit ventures because there is a larger desire to scale and replicate, the products and tools we’ve worked with that have a for-profit enterprise behind them. They are better supported and stickier,” Bellows explains. The city recently launched the accelerator during its BigThink event,and it could be yet another national model to come out of Philly’s leading edge Office of New Urban Mechanics.
Enter GoodCompany Group. GoodCompany is a partner on FastFWD, but was already working with social companies to marketable value and generate profit. “We were really inspired by Garret’s work,” Bellow’s says of Garrett Melby, founder of GoodCompany Ventures, who brought his GoodCompany model into the accelerator to help grow the first group of entrepreneurs. Melby will be working with civic entrepreneurs in the program to define a business model, and a market model, that they can use to prove their concept and gain access to private capital. Unlike a basic business plan bootcamp, this program will bring in public sector officials from the beginning to ensure that the product meets the needs of both government and end users.
“The accelerator itself is distinctly different from most tech accelerators. The 12 weeks that they spend with us is a very structured. Innovations that come out of this can’t just be high-minded change the world ideas, we want to see real products and value propositions that can be taken to market,” Melby says. “We want to work with entrepreneurs that have a compelling a product, network, value proposition and ROI. That’s what will allow things to proliferate. A company has to be able to go into a budget director and get them to allocate to it, by filling a real need.”
Some of the initial heavy lifting on this needs assessment is being provided by Wharton Business School which has conducted new research on the key issues that cities face, and concluded that public safety is the most costly area of spending for cities, and one in need of innovative solutions. US cities spend over $152 billion on public safety each year, and this market opportunity will be the focus point for the accelerator.
“As a city we want to start looking at blight, at-risk populations, other meatier issues and quantify those challenges so that we can start to bring in entrepreneurs and businesses to find solutions with us,” Bellows says. “It’s not just about accessing the raw data, it’s about putting context around those issues and finding solutions to the problem. We’re starting with public safety because there is a real willingness on the government side to take the risk and get involved with working on something more, to get to a solution.”
To that end, city officials will be in the room with entrepreneurs working on pricing and contracting models so that the resulting products will fit exactly what budget directors and workers are looking for. “We knew there were a lot of problems with procurement nationwide for startups that want to work with government, and we are hopeful that some of those issues can start be examined as well,” Bellows says. Philadelphia was recently noted by NPR as one of the few cities in america where IT procurement is working well.
Accelerator companies will get stipends of $10,000, with no equity required. $100,000 in city pilot funding will be available for the most promising innovations on the back of the accelerator, along with commitment to help these models with an eye toward replicating them in other cities. The first two rounds of companies are funded by the Mayor’s Challenge dollars, but the city will be looking at other options for subsequent rounds. If the initial groups are successful, they may be able to attract the eyes of angel investors and venture capitalists who are still largely missing from the civic startup space.
“The idea is to prove out a business model, in a sector where the mainstream VC community isn’t aware that there is new opportunity there,” Melby says.