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Mark Drapeau

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Is Washington, D.C. the Next Great American Entreprenerial Goldmine?

Posted: 02/24/2012 5:28 pm

First it was Silicon Valley of course, and then Silicon Alley (New York City), and then Silicon Beach (Santa Monica, C.A. area). What could possibly be next?

Well, there's a lot of buzz about whether Washington, D.C. could be the next great American startup hub. Entrepreneur Allen Gannett, co-founder of Splash Networks, recently wrote a post to that effect at The Next Web.

He shares some interesting statistics about large companies that have sprouted up (LivingSocial), some smaller hot ones (HelloWallet), the venture capital scene (D.C. is number five overall, but has the world's biggest VC firm, as it happens -- New Enterprise Associates), and notes the strong sense of community here:

D.C. is home to techies not just interested in building apps, but in building an extended family. February's D.C. Tech Meetup sold out with 999 attendees (compare that to New York's 805). And maybe it's the aforementioned southern charm, but D.C. entrepreneurs are focused on reinvesting in the ecosystem.


Spinnakr co-founder Michael Mayernick and Contactually co-founder Zvi Band built Proudly Made in DC, a listing of D.C. start-ups and resources that now boasts over 230 startups. Other events, such as Digital Capital Week in November (10,392 attendees) and this week's Social Media Week (4,000 attendees), are community-developed and designed to involve everyone.

And during the global Social Media Week that just happened, Mayor Gray engaged the local community, meeting with entrepreneurs in a casual setting, shortly after he welcomed new tech accelerator The Fort to, of all places, 17th and K St. NW (the apex of the known universe of lobbying).

It's also the case that Washington, D.C., of all American cities or states, is distinct. It is obviously a hub of business and innovation around the federal government. But it also has very strong verticals in defense and national security (think the Northrop Grummans of the world), hospitality (think Marriott headquarters), and biotechnology and medicine (pioneer Craig Venter raced the government to sequence the human genome near Bethesda, M.D. -- right next to the National Institutes of Health headquarters). We have a hot new energy startup here named OPower. All of these verticals and more are places where startups can innovate, get noticed, get funded, and get acquired.

That last part is noted in a new piece by Kira Newman at TechCocktail in a post called Chasing Silicon Valley: Is DC doing it wrong? She notes the results of a new study from FoundersCorps and Startup Virginia (the latter of which being a local 'arm' of Startup America) which -- in brief -- concludes that, "To grow Washington's startup ecosystem, we need to build startups that local, successful companies want to buy." TechCocktail notes:

'Success means growing numbers of entrepreneurs starting businesses, selling them, and then starting another,' writes author Jonathan Aberman. Aberman is the founder of McLean, VA-based Amplifier Ventures, cochair of StartupVirginia, and founder of FounderCorps (so he has a stake in these findings).

And here the two ideas come together. If the "startup community" of Washington, D.C. wants to be the next great American startup hub, it will most likely not happen by "chasing Silicon Valley" and trying to emulate Stanford and Facebook and whatever else. It could happen by striving to be something unique and playing to our natural strengths.

If Washington, D.C. has a strength, it may be that we are strong in (let's say for the sake of my post) five big verticals/industries -- civilian government, national security and defense, hotels and hospitality, energy and natural resources, and biotechnology and medicine. Taking what Jonathan Aberman says above to heart, entrepreneurs may want to think very hard about launching a startup which targets (say) the biotech industry, building relationships in that strong community, getting niche investments through what may seem like less typical routes, and then selling/exiting within the same industry.

Why isn't there (say) a burgeoning tech/innovation startup community busting at the seams around Bethesda, M.D.? I'm really not sure. Maybe it's because it's easy to be distracted and try to invent the next Pinterest, or impress the hottest VCs. Or maybe I'm just a little out of touch and there is a community like that which I'm not connected to -- please write a blog about it and correct me and let's share more of those stories in places like Publicyte, The Next Web, and TechCocktail.

All of those verticals noted above, by the way, tend to have lots of organizations/companies within them that are large enterprises. It may not be sexy in a consumer internet kind of way, but there's a lot of opportunity for startup companies targeting the enterprise business space. How can the Washington, D.C. community help to accelerate that?

 

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