District looking to give startup companies, entrepreneurs a boost

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People,April Burbank

Mayor Vincent Gray announced a new private-public partnership Wednesday to support and develop D.C.'s startup companies and entrepreneurs.

The 1776 initiative, which is also part of the Obama administration's Startup America Partnership, will have a campus in downtown D.C. that will serve as a common working space for startup companies, educate aspiring entrepreneurs and connect new companies with policymakers.

The District has signed a grant agreement with the initiative that requires 1776 to reserve 20 percent of the seats in its startup school for unemployed and underemployed D.C. residents, among other agreements.

"When you think about what's going on in D.C. with sequestration and all the talk about the inevitable decline in the size of the staffs serving the federal government -- whether it happens in the next six months or over the next six years ... We have to find a way to deal with that change," said 1776 Co-founder Donna Harris.

Evan Burfield, the company's other co-founder, said a strong startup environment in D.C. would also help the city cope with disruptions in public services like education, health care and transportation that he says are coming.

"If you're about to go undergo one of those massive transformations, what better city on the planet to be able to connect entrepreneurs ... than D.C.? You have all of the networks coming together here," Burfield said.

Harris said D.C. is already home to many startup companies, but 1776 will connect them and make them more visible. 1776 will serve as a startup school and will connect local students with entrepreneurs.

"Kids in the D.C. public school systems need to have a vision for what's possible for their lives, and no one's painting the vision that they can actually start a company as their future. We want to do that," Harris said.

Gray said startup companies would help the District to adapt to its booming population, which he said was on track to reach 850,000 people by 2032.

"There are those who think of that many people in the city, and all they can think about is traffic gridlock and the difficulty of moving around," Gray said. But he said startup companies, including the 1776 founders, were looking for solutions to the city's big problems. Gray wants D.C. to become the largest technology center on the East Coast.

Burfield, who started his own company in the D.C. area in the 1990s, said the initiative would offer the kind of support and mentoring that he desperately wanted when he was trying to navigate the startup process.

At Wednesday's news conference, the mayor accepted a 1776 T-shirt and promised the audience that he would wear it next month at the South by Southwest arts and technology conference in Austin, Texas, which he plans to attend.

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