Business

Six startups will get to use Durham local governments as testing ground for new ideas

City of Durham logo on the side of City Hall.
City of Durham logo on the side of City Hall. dvaughan@newsobserver.com

For the third year in a row, the city and county of Durham will play the role of laboratory for a cohort of startups testing out new ideas and business models.

For 12 weeks, under a program called Innovate Durham, a group of startups will get to work directly with city and county staff as well as public data and facilities, with the hopes that the startups might make local government more efficient and foster a culture of innovation.

For the first time this year, Innovate Durham will also include Durham Public Schools as an agency that will work with a startup, making it the first city, county and school system in North Carolina to create a public-private innovation partnership program, the city said.

The program is modeled after several existing ones that have been started across the country, including in Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and San Francisco.

With a robust startup scene taking root across the Triangle, the city and county didn’t want to ignore potentially talented entrepreneurs or smart ideas that might help improve outcomes for residents, Toney Thompson, a budget and management analyst with the city, said in an interview.

“The primary thing we are getting out of this partnership is the opportunity to innovate and test new ideas,” Thompson said. “A lot of times departments have problems they are seeking solutions to and Innovate Durham gives them an opportunity to test out a solution at no cost to see if it works for them.”

And even if an idea doesn’t work, Thompson added, “they have a better idea of what might work down the line.”

One example of a successful partnership that has come out of Innovate Durham is the city’s work with the local virtual reality startup Lucid Dream. Lucid Dream joined Innovate Durham in 2017 to help the city create 3D tours of unbuilt projects, like an affordable housing building.

“That was really effective,” Thompson said. “They are continuing to partner with the Planning Department to help residents to imagine what it could look like if the composition of Durham neighborhoods change rather than just talking about it at a high level.”

For its third year, Innovate Durham received 28 applications, of which six were selected:

Process Maker, a Durham-based maker of workflow software that helps companies and organizations automate complex business processes. Process Maker will work with the Durham County Information Services & Technology Department.

Reaszon, a Durham-based company that makes an assessment tool that measures the critical reasoning ability of job candidates and students. The company will work with the city’s human resources department.

Don’t Waste Durham, an organization that creates solutions to reducing trash. The group often gives consumers and businesses sustainable alternatives like the GreenToGo reusable food container. Don’t Waste Durham will work with the City of Durham Solid Waste Management Department.

NeedsList, a company that offers a real-time registry for crisis response. The company’s platform helps organizations communicate what supplies, volunteer work or funding might be needed in a real-time response to a disaster like a hurricane or a fire. NeedsList will work with the Durham City-County Emergency Management Department.

▪ AC AnalytiX, a startup that has made an air conditioning and refrigeration early warning monitoring system to alert when a problem arises in real time. For example, someone could monitor the operation of an air conditioning network from their desk. The company is working with the Durham County General Services Department.

B.combs, an online platform that attempts to save teachers’ and administrators’ time by aggregating activities and events, automating processes and providing actionable metrics. B.combs will work with Durham Public Schools.

While local startups are preferred, the Innovate Durham partnership is open to all companies, Thompson said.

Thompson added that companies working with sensitive data have to sign a “memorandum of understanding” with the city and county that they cannot take information with them and are carefully monitored when they do use them.

During the partnership with Innovate Durham, there is no monetary investment between the startups and local governments.

“We have always said to the startups is that this is just a test, Thompson said. “We are very explicit about that. We are seeing, at the very least, if we can gain value by partnering together. We feel there is just value in creating opportunity and creating collaboration.”

The pilots between the startups and the local government agencies will run from Aug. 26 to Nov. 29. In December, each startup will present the results of the partnership at a demo day.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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