1776 and the Case for D.C. as the Center of the Internet’s Next Revolution

The tech world has set its sights on regulated industries, and nobody knows regulation better than this city.

The tech work and event space 1776 in downtown Washington, D.C. Credit: Nancy Scola

When 1776 opened its doors in April, its founders bet on a thesis: That Washington, D.C. is poised to become the center of the Internet world.

The multipurpose tech workspace takes up the entire 12th floor in one of downtown’s nondescript marble and glass buildings. It’s 16,000 square feet of what was once, fittingly, a law firm. 1776 already houses some 145 companies and 275 workers, and is, according to cofounder Evan Burfield, preparing to remodel the eighth floor as well.

There are nods to Washington, D.C. and American history throughout the space. Hanging near the entrance of the Jobs Room, a meeting area named for the late Apple luminary, is a painted rendition of the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster. Bottles of Georgetown Trading Co.’s 1776 rye and bourbon line the shelves of a shared kitchen. The floor itself is giant version of the District’s “stars and bars,” which runs the length of the space.

Still, Burfield says, 1776 as a physical space was something of an afterthought. He and fellow entrepreneur Donna Harris spent two years noodling on the idea of how to bring new life to D.C.’s tech scene. Their conclusion, Burfield says, was that “there needs to be a ‘there’ there,” and with a $200,000 grant from the city government, they launched the campus on 15th Street this spring.

Collaborative tech spaces aren’t exactly unusual in major U.S. cities these days. For example, New York has, among others, General Assembly. There’s Austin’s Capital Factory or 1871 in Chicago. But 1776 is of, by and for D.C. It captures a certain mix of the city’s earnestness, insider understanding and the opportunity born of both.

“Steve Case talks about this all the time,” Burfield says of the former AOL CEO who has emerged as Washington’s favorite tech leader. “The first wave of Internet innovation was just convincing people that there was any benefit to being online.” Then, “a whole lot of innovation that has happened over the last 10 years has been very consumer-centric. I can get goods and services in a better way. I can get media in a better way. I can connect with friends in a better way.”

Those are innovations in “unregulated sectors which don’t tend to have monopolistic tendencies,” says the wavy-haired Burfield, a tattoo poking out from the rolled sleeve of his striped button-down. But, he argues, we’ve quickly gotten to the point where the improvements that come fairly easily aren’t doing anyone much good. “I’m sure that there’s a better photo sharing thing than Instagram,” he says. “I just don’t care.” It’s the sort of talk that goes over well over drinks on Capitol Hill.

Instead, as Burfield tells it, the real juicy challenges in tech now are in industries that have “massive problems and massive potential” like education, health care and energy — which happen to be Washington’s obsessions, too. That’s not without its complications. “Education in America alone is $800 billion a year,” Burfield says. “Health care is over a trillion. Energy is over a trillion. These are huge, huge industries.”

But that same economic potential has long drawn entrenched interests; not to mention that these areas happen to be consequential enough that government has seen fit to rule them with a heavy hand. Reforming heavily regulated industries, the argument goes, is the future of networked tech. And perhaps no place on the planet is more dedicated to making and understanding regulation than Washington, D.C.

Credit: Nancy Scola

Everything in 1776 is built on wheels to make way for gatherings. The founders see it as a space where members of Congress and government officials feel comfortable hanging out. Politicians like Reps. Darrell Issa and Jared Polis have been by, as has Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. One day last week, a lawyer for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congress’ chief watchdog group, held office hours.

It’s not that tech is new to Washington. In fact, the area has long had a significant tech presence, from AOL to MicroStrategy to the Internet service providers who set up in northern Virginia. “There’s always been a start-up community here,” Burfield says. Thing is, “it’s been almost completely disconnected from the actual business of Washington.”

That useful collaboration springs from human density is an oft-made argument, perhaps most recently in Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. But the twist is Washington’s unique ability to bring together a certain collection of people, groups and institutions. The bet, Burfield says, “is that the network density that we can build right here is around a junction of corporates, domain experts, advocacy networks, media attention and policy issues, all coming together.”

Health care, to pick one example, is in a moment of upheaval, driven mostly by Congress, the White House, and the Department of Health and Human Services. The Obama administration alone has pushed for billions of dollars to shift the country to electronic health records. Burfield directs my attention to the Jobs Room. “In there you’ve got the director of innovation for Aetna meeting with six or eight of our health care start-ups,” he says.

To become a 1776 start-up, companies must be “scalable and fundable.” An incubator program provides growing outfits with mentorship, and an accelerator helps companies with traction to figure out how to expand industry-wide. There’s a global component, too. Recently launched was the Challenge Cup, a sort of “World Cup for start-ups tackling grand challenges,” per Burfield. The finals will bring 64 sets of entrepreneurs to D.C. in the spring. Some companies use 1776 as a D.C. outpost for operations based elsewhere. The constant aim, though, is to tap into what the nation’s capital has to offer.

Take VisitDays. The two-person start-up helps match prospective students with colleges and universities they’d like to visit. For students and families, the service helps them customize their visit — say, meeting with a specific professor. For schools, part of the appeal is being able to capture the nuances of potential attendees’ interests.

VisitDays had been looking into relocating to college-dense Boston or New York City, Burfield says. The role of 1776 was to point out what the entrepreneurs may have overlooked locally. Had they considered building a relationship with the Chronicle of Higher Education, based just a mile away from 1776’s headquarters? What about the College Board, with offices in nearby Reston, Va.?

“They’ve been able to tap into those networks that they didn’t know existed in D.C., because they were just sort of here,” Burfield says. “Just because you’re here in D.C. doesn’t mean you have any idea what the nation’s capital really has to offer you if you’re a start-up,” whether that’s human connections or ready access to the huge amounts of data regularly collected by government and its offshoots.

Credit: Nancy Scola

More than the town’s permanent attributes is its role as a meeting place. If you’re involved in health or energy or education or government services, you’re likely to pass through D.C. at some point. “This is where all those networks come together,” Burfield says. “It’s understanding how to leverage them.”

Still, it’s an approach that has to bridge some long-standing gaps in order to work. Recent flirtations between Washington and Silicon Valley aside, the tech world and policy world have traditionally ignored each others’ substance.

It might be unfair to expect much on that front. “Part of my thesis,” Burfield says, “is that very, very, very few people actually understand how Washington works. Lord knows the Valley doesn’t. Much of New York doesn’t.” But he goes a step further. “In fact, most of D.C. doesn’t.” K Street doesn’t quite get the policy world, he says, and vice versa. Embassies live in a separate city than government contractors do, and don’t forget the fairly vibrant creative community. “It’s amazing to me how fragmented and insular the different networks are in Washington.” The aim of 1776 is to get those networks to overlap.

There’s the practical matter, though, that start-ups are poorly informed about the policy machinations that affect their core businesses. 1776 is, Burfield says, in the process of hiring writers and editors in a bid to create media that fills that gap.

But Burfield argues that the reverse is true, too. Policymakers are ill-informed about what’s happening on the innovation front that will affect their core business. President Obama has this summer been on a bus tour of the northeast, where he’s talked about reducing the costs of college.

“If you look at the way he’s talking about the issue,” Burfield says, “it’s not even paying attention to the fact that you have a whole debate going on amongst the leading thinkers in education on, ‘Are we 10 years from a $10,000 college degree? Is the fundamental premise of higher ed about to go through what newspapers just went through? Is the entire idea that it takes four years to go to college going to disappear and it will be however long it takes you to get the badges that you need?’”

“Meanwhile,” Burfield continues, “you have a policy discussion that’s focused on Pell Grants.”

The grand ambition of 1776 is to be a place where notions about the future of education get informed, whether they’re held by tech entrepreneurs or presidents. One major point in its favor is that the merits of start-ups are a rare point of agreement in Washington, and that unabashed embrace of all things innovative gives 1776 the aura of a safe space. “Literally,” Burfield says, “your Democrats love it, your Republicans love it.” The marriage of tech innovation and traditional policy sectors can, it seems, perhaps even lead to actual romance.

“Adrian Fenty is dating Steve Jobs’ widow,” Burfield points out, slapping his knee for emphasis. Fenty was mayor of D.C. from 2007 to 2011. Says Burfield of his relationship with Laurene Powell Jobs, “if you want a bigger signal that the Valley and D.C. are suddenly smashing together, I don’t know what it is.”

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: washington dcshared citystartups

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