Government as Convener - Fostering Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Ed. Note: This week the Obama Administration celebrating America’s entrepreneurs and small businesses as part of National Entrepreneurship Week. Join Commerce Secretary Gary Locke today at 1 p.m. for a live chat on entrepreneurship and innovation.

This week on the White House blog, we’ve highlighted the Obama Administration’s role in improving entrepreneurs’ access to capital, driving innovation from the lab to the marketplace, empowering vetrepreneurs, and fueling disruptive energy startups.  Today, in celebration of the first-ever National Entrepreneurs’ Day, I thought to highlight the emerging role of government as convener to catalyze entirely new ideas and business models. Through competition in prizes and challenges, open data downloads, and participation in voluntary consensus standards activities, entrepreneurs are finding new ways to participate – and succeed in building the industries and jobs of the future.

Prizes and Challenges

Co-Founder of Sun Microsystems Bill Joy once famously said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people on the planet work for someone else.”  Recognizing this innovation imperative, in his Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on agencies to increase their use of prizes and challenges to bring America’s top talent and best ideas to bear on our toughest problems.  Prizes allow the government to articulate an ambitious goal – such as building a super fuel-efficient car or creating an app that moves the needle on childhood obesity – without having to predict the team or approach that is most likely to succeed. With a strict focus on results, prizes empower new, untapped talent –  determined entrepreneurs and disruptive start-ups – to deliver novel solutions that accelerate innovation.  In return, winning solvers receive not only the cash prize, but the validation, visibility, and network they need to attract capital and thrive.  Entrepreneurs and citizen innovators should visit Challenge.gov to compete for prestige and prizes by solving problems, large and small.

Open Data

On his first full day in office, President Obama signed a memorandum on transparency and open government, ushering in a new era in which the gap between the American people and their government would close. A signature initiative in that endeavor is the launch of data.gov, a platform that provides public access to high value, machine readable datasets, including information on the location of farmers markets and the operational costs of employer retirement plans. Entrepreneurs are benefiting from a shift in agency culture that has dramatically lowered the barrier to information. The Founders of Brightscope, for example, have uncovered dramatic price variation in the fees paid to manage retirement accounts for small businesses. Launched within weeks of the President’s Open Government Initiative, the firm now has access to data on 90% of all corporate 401(k) assets and a staff of 30 mining it for cost savings opportunities. Please share your suggestions for high value datasets that might spark your next business venture.

Voluntary Consensus Standards

The Obama Administration is working with the private sector to unlock market opportunities in key growth sectors of the economy -- sectors like the smart grid and healthcare IT that will drive economic growth, innovation, and jobs. Through collaboration with the National Institutes for Standards and Technology, and the Departments of Energy and Health & Human Services, entrepreneurs have worked alongside others in the private sector to define interoperability standards in areas like consumer energy usage information and safe, secure clinical messaging among providers, patients, labs and pharmacies. Launched in March 2010, the Direct Project achieved industry consensus on technical specifications within 90 days and is publishing a reference application that can be freely available for any entrepreneur to reuse in the development of a new innovative healthcare application.

This is just a snapshot of the pathbreaking work federal agencies are doing to promote entrepreneurship and innovation, and we will continue to roll out new initiatives over the next year and beyond. For all these successes, of course, government can only do so much to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem.  As the President noted in his proclamation of National Entrepreneurship Week:

All Americans can play a role in increasing the prevalence and success of new start-ups. Business leaders can mentor a budding entrepreneur who has an original idea and the will to execute, but could benefit from the guidance of an experienced owner or operator. Philanthropists can expand entrepreneurship education for ambitious students at underserved schools and community colleges. Universities can accelerate the transition of scientific breakthroughs from the lab to the marketplace. Together, we can help millions of entrepreneurs create the industries and jobs of the 21st century and solve some of the toughest challenges we face as a Nation.

Stay tuned for new initiatives in the coming months, as government and the private sector continue working together to accelerate entrepreneurs and high-growth startups.

Aneesh Chopra is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer

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