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San Francico Selects Six Startups for "Entrepreneurship-in-Residence" Program

BY Miranda Neubauer | Saturday, March 15 2014

(Birdi via Facebook)

Six start-ups will be partnering with San Francisco city agencies to help develop innovative solutions to civic challenges touching on issues ranging from air quality to improving navigation at San Francisco International Airport, Mayor Edwin Lee announced Thursday.

As techPresident previously reported, the new "Entrepreneurship-in-Residence” program is a sixteen-week volunteer public-private collaboration to explore ways that technological tools could help cities be more efficient. Around 200 start-ups from 25 cities and countries around the world applied, according to a city press release, and the city announced eleven finalists in November.

"San Francisco is home to the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, the ones who have ‘disrupted’ numerous industries, and we are bringing those same disruptive technologies to improve delivery of City services for our residents," Lee said in a statement.

One of the companies to make the final cut is Birdi, a start-up aiming to reinvent the Smoke Detector with a smart air monitor that has Wi-Fi and other advanced data capabilities.

Birdi will be working with the San Francisco Department of Health on air quality and health issues.

Birdi CEO Mark Belinsky explained that a jumping off point for the collaboration will be the fact that San Francisco is one of the only cities mandating that any building developers planning construction near highways need to study the air quality and add air ventilation if there is risk of a negative impact on citizens' health.

While discussion with the DOH are still in their early stages, Belinsky said that the collaboration will involve a large-scale analysis and epidemiological study of the impact of air quality on public health. By having access to city properties, Belinsky said Birdi hoped to do research on the health environment for children in schools, as well as municipal buildings and low-income housing "to gain a robust understanding of the whole city at large rather than just targeting small groups of individual innovators."

Currently the tool can measure air quality factors such as pollution and pollen, as well as detect fire and carbon monoxide. With a gas leak suspected of being the cause behind the deadly home explosion in New York City this week, further experimentation and advanced algorithms could mean the possibility in the future of also being able to warn about that kind of danger, Belinsky said. He explained that Birdi is not just the air monitor itself, but also an app that lets users check the air quality in their home from afar.

"In a city where the tech sector has become contentious with the anger about the [Google Buses] creating a divide between regular San Francisco and techie San Francisco, [this program] can help bridge that gap and show how the tech community can contribute," Belinsky said.

The final selection process had involved frequent back and forth with the Department of Health to determine how Birdi could contribute to the agency's needs, he said. "There isn't really another program out there like it," he said.

He added that he hoped for opportunities to collaborate with the other companies on addressing common challenges of navigating government procurement and interaction with bureaucracy. "It's a lot of software companies, and we're more into the physical space, so it will be interesting to see where [we connect]," he said.

Government initiative and support has been crucial to Birdi's success from the beginning, Belinsky emphasized. Birdi grew out of a prototype by co-founder Justin Alvey that won second place at the 2013 New York City sponsored BigApps Cleanweb hackathon. The financial support for the second-place win helped the team buy circuit boards to develop the tool further, he said, and provided the validation that helped put Birdi on the path to where it is today.

In November, Rahul Mewawalla, senior advisor to the San Francisco Mayor's Office, told techPresident that one goal of the program was to encourage start-ups that might otherwise focus on developing services for Fortune 500 companies to pay attention to the $140 billion public sector market and develop prototypes that could be useful for cities across the country and around the world. The selected start-ups will also have access to business, government and management mentors including San Francisco CIO Jay Nath, SV Angel Special Adviser Ron Conway, Alissa Black, director of the New America Foundation's California Civic Innovation Project and entrepreneur Monique Woodard, who worked as a Mayor's Innovation Fellow for the City of San Francisco.

The other selected start-ups include MobilePD, a mobile technology start-up that will work with the Police Department on public safety and civic engagement, Indoo.rs, which will work on providing enhanced navigation and location-based services at San Francisco International Airport, Synthicity, which will work with the Planning Department on developing new simulation and urban development tools and technologies, BuildingEye, which will work with the Municipal Transportation Agency to engage residents and communities by building on its experience of making permit and noticing information more accessible through a mapping interface, and ReGroup, which will work with the Department of Emergency Management on enhanced communication services.