Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • Accelerating Startups During National Small Business Week

    The Obama Administration is laser-focused on continuing to grow jobs and new industries here in the United States, and one of the best ways to do that is by unleashing the talent and tenacity of America’s small businesses and entrepreneurs.  That’s why the White House launched the Startup America initiative to celebrate, inspire, and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the Nation.  Over the past three years, this “all hands on deck” initiative has expanded entrepreneurs’ access to capital, accelerated research breakthroughs from the lab to the marketplace, and rallied private-sector partners to strengthen startup communities all across the country.

    Building on these efforts, today U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet kicked off National Small Business Week by launching a $2.5 million competition for startup accelerators and other entrepreneurial ecosystem models to compete for monetary prizes of $50,000 each to fund their operating budgets. To award the prizes, an expert panel of judges will consider each applicant’s stated mission, founding team members, and business goals among other core components. Through this competition, SBA will support development of accelerators and startups, particularly in parts of the country where there are fewer conventional sources of access to capital. In addition, SBA is seeking out accelerators that are run by and support women or other underrepresented groups.  Finally, SBA will give special consideration to accelerator models that support manufacturing.  The contest application is available here, and is open until August 2, 2014.

    In honor of the President’s Proclamation of National Small Business Week, we recently caught up with several entrepreneurs who have benefitted from programs associated with the Startup America initiative, including winners of competitions sponsored by the Department of Energy to showcase student-led clean energy innovations.  We asked them to tell us why the Startup America initiative is important and what advice they have for other aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators.

  • Reimagining the Chemistry Set for the 21st Century

    Inspiration and preparation are critical themes at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s ambitious national science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education agenda. The Administration has made it a priority to ensure that all young people are prepared with a strong foundation in STEM that they can use in both their professional and personal lives.  In addition, the Administration is committed to supporting work that inspires young people to pursue STEM throughout their coursework and careers.  

    The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has championed the use of prize competitions to source new ideas from citizen solvers and spur innovation on issues such as STEM education and beyond.  In order to find new ways to engage young people in STEM-related activities, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation recently partnered with the Society for Science & the Public on the SPARK (Science Play and Research Kit) Competition, a national prize competition to solicit ideas that reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century.

    We had the chance to speak with Janet Coffey, Program Officer at the Moore Foundation, recently about the Spark Competition. Here is a transcript of the conversation:

    What inspired you and Society for Science & the Public to run this competition?

    The “chemistry set” is really a metaphor for playful, self-guided discovery, like that offered to an earlier generation by the classic chemistry set. Decades ago, these kits facilitated children’s curiosity and exploration, dared them to ask and pursue their own questions, and captured their imaginations through the joy of science.  Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and our foundation, attributes his pursuit of a career in science and technology to his childhood chemistry set. He’s not alone. Scientists and science enthusiasts over a certain age often credit their childhood use of chemistry sets as the initial “spark” that helped fuel lifelong engagement with science.

    Now, the exciting chemicals in classic chemistry sets are illegal. And many of the other open-ended ways that children from past generations learned to explore the world are harder to come by.

    In this competition, we wanted to address this gap. We were looking for new ideas to get children “hooked” on science, so we wanted ideas that took advantage of children’s propensity to play and ask questions, allowed them to tinker, puzzle, and revel in the messiness of exploration and discovery – not unlike what the classic chemistry set once did, and not unlike what real scientists do. 

  • Using Prizes to Engage Citizen Solvers: A Progress Report

    Today OSTP released its third annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation, engage citizen solvers, address tough problems, and advance their core missions. This year’s report details the remarkable results from 87 prize competitions implemented by 25 Federal agencies in fiscal year 2013, representing an over 85 percent increase over the prior year.

    This progress is due to important steps that the Obama Administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox. In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.

    To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.

    The report released today reviews several trends in public-sector prize competitions:

    • Growth in the number of competitions and the size of prize purses. In addition to the 85 percent annual increase in prizes run under all legal authorities, the number of prizes conducted under the authority provided by COMPETES increased by over 50 percent compared to 2012 and by nearly six-fold compared to 2011. And the size of prize purses has grown as well – 11 prizes had prize purses of $100,000 or greater in 2013. HHS continued to be a leader in open innovation, offering 28 prizes in FY 2013, a 50% increase over the prior year. The HHS challenges offered a total of over $1.2 million prize purses, with an average purse size of $46,000, a 150% increase over the prior year.
    • Increased focus on using prizes to identify novel solutions. Federal agencies increasingly used prizes to identify novel solutions from innovators and decreasingly used prizes for public education and outreach. For example, EPA and HHS’s My Air, My Health Challenge was a call to innovators to develop a personal and portable integrated system to monitor, report, and assess air pollutants and potentially-related physiological and health metrics. The $100,000 prize went to a team that built the Conscious Clothing prototype that could cost as little as $20 when built to scale. Its low price, comfort, and near-invisibility make it attractive not only to researchers and communities, but to individuals looking to take charge of their own health.
    • Emphasis on creating a post-competition path to success for new solutions. Prize managers experimented with ways to increase the likelihood that solutions generated during a challenge would be implemented post-competition, by targeting the solutions for further development through targeted grants, SBIR funding, or direct development by a Federal lab; forming partnerships to promote or deploy winning solutions; and tying future plans and investments to the lessons learned during the competition. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design is a multi-stage regional design competition to promote resilience for the region affected by Hurricane Sandy and develop resilience projects that will actually be built. The ten finalist teams were given opportunities to interface with community leaders and stakeholder groups to provide their unique insights and understanding of the region to the teams. Beyond the $2,000,000 prize purse was funded entirely by HUD’s philanthropic partners, another major incentive for the design teams is the potential for future involvement with the implementation of their ideas through state or local jurisdictions. HUD will incentivize the implementation of winning designs by using funds made available through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG–DR) program to leverage other public and private funds.
    • More prizes for effective and low-cost software and information technology solutions. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 sought software solutions such as applications (apps), data visualization tools, and predictive models and algorithms. Many of these coding, software, and IT challenges sought to build value from open government data for both citizens and the Federal government and to increase citizens’ access to private-sector applications and services that can be used to analyze their own personal data securely. The $50,000 Apps for Vehicles Challenge, offered by the Department of Energy (DOE), asked application developers to demonstrate how the open data available on most vehicles can be used to improve vehicle safety, fuel efficiency, and comfort. DOE awarded New York-based Dash the Judges’ Prize and Michigan-based MyCarma the Popular Choice prize. Since the competition, Dash started a company with their winning app and MyCarma has since been acquired by another company; both are now available to consumers.
    • New models for engaging the public and building communities during competitions. Challenge managers experimented with new ways to engage the public and develop new communities through approaches such as: new methods for public voting; use of “co-design” online platforms to integrate user needs into the design of solutions; publication of winning solutions as open source resources; use of crowdfunding to support entrants; and physical and virtual forums that allowed entrants and stakeholders to discuss, develop, and improve solutions. For example, in the $40,000 Crowds Care 4 Cancer: Supporting Survivors Challenge offered by the HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), developers built tools and apps to coordinate follow-up care for cancer survivors. The three semi-finalists teams raised over $16,000 in additional seed-funding through an online crowdfunding platform.

    You can learn more about the prize competitions being run across the Federal Government at, a one-stop shop where tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and citizen solvers have participated in more than 300 of these public-sector prize competitions to date. Earlier this year, the program won the prestigious “Innovations in American Government Award” from Harvard University’s Ash Center.

    Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

  • Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery goes Global with State Department & USAID’s Tech Camp in the Philippines

    In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Administration started the Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative to identify, develop and deploy technology based tools to support first responders, survivors, local, state and Federal officials. These efforts have included hosting an all-day “Data Jam/Think Tank” at the White House, working with leading tech startups to identify innovative ways their platforms could be leveraged during a disaster and hiring two Presidential Innovation Fellows to build crowdsourcing applications. Applications created by the Presidential Innovation Fellow include Lantern, a mobile app designed to allow survivors to report and access information on power outages, fallen power lines, and the status of gas stations; and “GeoQ”, a tool that crowd-sources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to help experts assess damage over large regions.

    Earlier this week, the President arrived in the Philippines, a country that has been deeply impacted by recent natural disasters. On May 5th and 6th, the U.S Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development will build on efforts to utilize innovation for disaster response and recovery efforts internationally by hosting a Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience Building TechCamp in the Philippines. Local civil society groups and technologists will roll up their sleeves and join forces to create innovative, low-cost tech-solutions to natural disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan and the recent 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the Philippines. With support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the UN World Food Programme, Globe Labs, Open Data Philippines and other partners, these low-cost, easy-to-use technological tools and concepts will help encourage communities to focus on prevention, preparation and resilience.

    TechCamp Philippines aims to provide a venue for sharing knowledge regarding Disaster Risk Reduction and Response efforts, and to identify practical actions for collaboration and partnerships. Technologists will discuss topics such as leveraging open data, crowdfunding, and interactive gaming.  In addition, these experts will address ways to effectively engage citizens through social media to solve detailed challenges in tracking relief and aid contributions in a transparent and systematic manner, disseminate early warning information for multiple hazards, and conduct damage and needs assessment.

  • PCAST Releases Report on Big Data and Privacy

    Earlier this year, President Obama asked his counselor John Podesta to lead a comprehensive review of policy issues at the intersection of big data and privacy. As a contribution to that review, he asked his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to examine current and likely future capabilities of key technologies, both those associated with the collection, analysis, and use of big data and those that can help to preserve privacy. Over the past 90 days, we have reviewed the technical literature, consulted with additional experts whose research or product-development activity focuses on the key technologies, engaged complementary perspectives from social science and the law to help put our technical insights into perspective, and deliberated over what we were learning.

    Today, PCAST is releasing its analysis via a new report, Big Data: A Technological Perspective, which details the technical aspects of big data and privacy. The ubiquity of computing and electronic communication technologies has led to the exponential growth of data from both digital and analog sources.  New technical abilities to gather, analyze, disseminate, and preserve vast quantities of data raise new concerns about the nature of privacy and the means by which individual privacy might be compromised or protected. 

    This report begins by exploring the changing nature of privacy as computing technology has advanced and big data has come to the forefront.  It proceeds by identifying the sources of these data, the utility of these data — including new data analytics enabled by data mining and data fusion — and the privacy challenges big data poses in a world where technologies for re-identification often outpace privacy-preserving de-identification capabilities, and where it is increasingly hard to identify privacy-sensitive information at the time of its collection.

  • New Steps to Build an Innovative, 21st Century Detroit

    The Obama Administration is committed to partnering with the City of Detroit—its citizens, local leaders, and community stakeholders—to support the City’s vision for economic revitalization. As part of this effort, last November, the White House brought together, in Detroit, a team of top municipal-government technology officials from around the country to meet with city officials and local private-sector, non-profit, and civic innovators. The goal of the trip, and the ongoing engagement between this Tech Team of municipal officials and the City, has been to identify ways technology can be leveraged in support of economic revitalization and improved services for city residents.

    The five individuals on this “Tech Team” have led innovative efforts in other cities—Boston, Chicago, Louisville, New Orleans, and Raleigh—that ultimately created significant costs-savings for their respective local governments and facilitated the development of customer-facing tools that made government services easier to access.

    Today, we are transmitting to the City of Detroit a report from the “Tech Team” which include initial impressions, observations, and suggested areas of focus for the city. These recommendations are based on the team’s experiences in their cities and the two days they spent with the incredible municipal leadership and staff in Detroit. The full report is here.

    Ultimately, the City of Detroit and its leadership will know best how to interpret and apply the observations and recommendations, but we are confident that collaborative efforts such as this one can complement and amplify the important work already underway by the City and local stakeholders.

    Upon receipt of the report Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan issued the following statement:

    We're deeply grateful to the Obama administration for making Detroit's technology needs a priority by sending us this Tech Team.  The recommendations the Team has presented us will help light a path toward improved efficiency and customer service across every city department. They also will help us establish greater transparency in our local government.  We've already fulfilled one of the report's key recommendations by creating the position of Chief Information Officer to lead our efforts.  We are thrilled that one of the team's members, Beth Niblock, recently joined my administration to become our new CIO and she already is doing great work to move Detroit forward.

    As noted by Mayor Duggan, one of the Tech Team’s key recommendations has already been fulfilled by the City: the establishment of a cabinet-level position within city government to lead technology and government service delivery efforts. Mayor Duggan recently recruited Beth Niblock, one of the original members of the team, to be the City of Detroit’s first-ever cabinet level Chief Information Officer. The creation of this new position—with Beth on the job— further solidifies the critical role of technology and innovation in the City’s policies and economic revitalization efforts. In her role, CIO Niblock will play a leading role in applying insights from the Tech Team to benefit the citizens of Detroit.

    In addition, the Teach Team’s report includes the following recommended areas of focus:

    • Evaluating IT Infrastructure: Identify opportunities for streamlining government processes and realizing cost-savings in city spending, including areas such as standardizing software applications and consolidating data centers and servers;
    • Promoting Civic Innovation in Detroit: Leverage the knowledge and expertise of Detroit’s lively, diverse civic innovation ecosystem of social and civic entrepreneurs, foundations, and business owners to develop tools and technologies to benefit the City and local residents.
    • Opening Government Data: Make freely available government data more open and accessible to fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth while ensuring privacy and security;
    • Creating a 311 System:  Create a 311 system to improve citizen-relationship management and decrease non-emergency related service requests to emergency lines such as 911;
    • Improving Enterprise Geographic Information System (GIS): Facilitate the build-out of citywide enterprise Geographic Information System.
    • Enabling Online Permitting: Develop and provide the capability for local residents to apply and pay for business, safety, building, and other permits online.

    As previously announced and in conjunction with the Administration’s efforts to support Detroit revitalization, Kresge Foundation funded the Tech Team’s trip to Detroit. In addition, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Rock Ventures committed to provide $500,000 to help implement key elements of this report, which could include hiring innovation fellows, making necessary technology upgrades, and supporting local tech-training and mentoring.

    Going forward, the White House, the Tech Team, and the City of Detroit will continue to collaborate on revitalization efforts and to help build a robust, 21st century Detroit.

    Brian Forde is Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

    Don Graves is Executive Director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness at the White House