Opinion

the podium | Karen Spilka

A hack-a-thon for government

Picture the state’s startup community.

There’s a group of twenty-somethings working around the clock in a coworking space, developing their idea for a new mobile app. There’s a serial entrepreneur pursuing funding for her next project and advising newcomers to the startup scene. And there are angel investors and venture capitalists searching for the next big money-making idea.

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Where does a state legislator fit in with this group?

Our innovation economy in Massachusetts is driven by this technology community, yet startups and government rarely interact. Many people in the tech community feel cut off from the policy making process. They don’t know how to make their voices heard.

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The future of our economy depends on engaging this community. As legislators, we are generalists. We rely on people out in the trenches of the startup world to tell us what they need and help us find ways to make it easier to do business here. We can’t make Massachusetts friendly to startups, innovation and entrepreneurship if we don’t listen to and work closely with startup founders, technology company executives, investors, and workers across the state.

Last year, I founded the Tech Hub Caucus in the Legislature to encourage these interactions with the tech and startup communities and open new lines of communication between business and government. We want to know what’s really going on in this world and what government could do differently.

Earlier this month, we held a first-of-its-kind tech policy “Idea-a-thon,” based on the model of a Hack-a-thon, where software engineers and programmers join forces for marathon sessions of coding to spur innovative breakthroughs and develop new technologies. In this case, the goal was to identify innovative new ideas for government to improve Massachusetts’ business and startup environment.

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PayPal COO David Chang, who hosted the Idea-a-thon at their Start Tank incubator, kicked off the event with “time to whine.” What’s bothering you? What makes it difficult for you to start and grow your company? What do you wish we could change?

Within minutes, people identified their “pain points”: recruiting talent, accessing state resources, and pursuing government contracts, among many other concerns. We separated into groups based on different pressing challenges and immediately began fast and furious brainstorming for solutions. This was a space for wild ideas, where people weren’t constrained by the way things are. The Idea-a-thon was an opportunity to imagine how things could and should be for startups and tech companies in Massachusetts.

Seasoned entrepreneurs, people working on their first startup idea, and venture capitalists mixed with state government lawyers, policy advisors, and legislative leaders to talk about problems and real, tangible solutions. How can Massachusetts help technology companies start, grow, and thrive here?

At the end of the night, our seven celebrity judges chose the winning idea, proposed by a young entrepreneur from a mobile wellness startup. The idea, which will be filed as a bill in the state legislature, was a plan to help startups navigate the state procurement process and secure government contracts. This idea makes it easier for smaller companies to approach government and would also provide state agencies and municipalities with needed technology resources.

The model of the Hack-a-thon, the tech sector’s tool for developing new software ideas, evidently works for policy ideas, too. These thoughtful, creative ideas are an exciting step in a necessary conversation. What needs to be done? Let’s fix it together.

In January, we begin a new legislative session guided by a new Senate President and working with a new governor. In this changing state government landscape, we must continue to share our pain points and work creatively to find solutions.

The Idea-a-thon was just the beginning. Participation at MassTLC’s unConference last week was another step. This conversation will continue. The Tech Hub Caucus can be the entry point to government for entrepreneurs and technology leaders. We want to know what it’s really like in the startup world. Above all, we want to harness your creativity to solve problems and make government and Massachusetts better.

As we saw at our first Idea-a-thon, legislators can and should be part of the startup community. Government is here to listen and learn. We’re here to connect with people and companies who have ideas to make Massachusetts a more welcoming, creative and innovative place to start and grow a company.

Democratic Senator Karen E. Spilka of Ashland is Senate majority whip and chair of the Tech Hub Caucus.
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