With FastFWD, the Bloomberg Foundation-backed public safety startup accelerator, the City of Philadelphia and its partners had an ambitious, though wonky, goal: to update the procurement process.
By cutting through the red tape for startups looking to contract with the city, FastFWD could bring in more innovative answers to the city’s toughest problems. Generations-long cycles of poverty and violence and crime needed fresh solutions.
After a 12-week program, each FastFWD company was eligible to apply for a city request for proposal (RFP) so they could pilot their products. Unlike a traditional RFP that prescribes a solution, the FastFWD RFP would ask a question — how do we increase public safety? — and invite many answers. That type of RFP, the thinking went, would bring innovation and collaboration to a process that is normally risk-averse and unfriendly to startups.
Now that the first class has wrapped and the second class just kicked off, how’s that going? Is FastFWD accomplishing its goals?
Keep in mind, this was the city’s first try at something like this.
“The first cohort were our guinea pigs,” Bellows said.
Boosting public safety startups or reforming the procurement process. Which is it?
At the beginning, the city and its partners, GoodCompany Group and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, had “a lot of assumptions” about the problems with procurement and how cities interact with entrepreneurs, Bellows said. With the first class, FastFWD was able to test those assumptions and figure out what the actual problems were, she said. That’s one reason the second class of FastFWD will look different from the first.
This time around, FastFWD wants to do a better job of grooming startups to apply for the city RFP. That means helping startups develop the right kind of pilot to run with the city, Melby said. Ideally, each startup will create a city pilot where it can test something about the business, rather than just try to get a city contract — that’s one area where FastFWD fell short with its first class, he said.
The program should be less about entrepreneurs seeing the city as a revenue source or a customer, he said. It’s more about seeing the city as a partner, as “a test bed.”
Seven of the 10 startups in the first FastFWD class applied to the city RFP, and three were chosen for contracts ranging from $30,000 to $35,000. Those that didn’t apply to the city RFP, like SafeCity and Legal Science Partners, said that they weren’t trying to sell their product to the City of Philadelphia.
Out of the seven startups that applied for the RFP, Bellows said some weren’t what the city was looking for.
In the second class, “we want to make it tougher on ourselves to choose which pilots to run,” Bellows said.
The pilot programs the city chose either already had “a level of familiarity” with the city, like texting platform Textizen (whose CEO Michelle Lee worked closely with the city during her 2012 Code for America fellowship), or had “a really clear potential buyer in the city,” like edtech startup Jail Education Solutions (who was clearly targeting the prison system), Bellows said.
“With a lot of entrepreneurs, there isn’t a single clear buyer where they should direct their outreach,” she said. “We want to make those pathways a little more clear.”
To that end, one big change in the second class is that FastFWD will pair the startups with city employees, thought of as “sherpas” who will be a point of contact in city government and help them design pilot projects, Melby said. Many of these sherpas will be graduates from the city’s Innovation Academy. This is also a tactic to get city employees (and not just department heads) more involved with the program, Bellows said.
When it came to reworking the procurement process, Sharath Mekala thought FastFWD fell short. It wasn’t clear what was being reformed, said Mekala, CEO of Village Defense. He was one of the entrepreneurs chosen to run a pilot with the city after FastFWD.
The program, he said, was less focused on how to get a city contract and more focused on how to find investors.
FastFWD was 'essential,' said one startup founder.
“A lot of us didn’t know what the RFP process looked like,” he said, and the FastFWD didn’t do a good job of illuminating it.
Still, FastFWD was “essential” for the company, Mekala said, and worth the risk of putting his business on hold to move to Philadelphia from Atlanta and attend the 12-week program. He’s now in talks with two other local customers, aside from the pilot with Philadelphia.
Mekala’s sentiments echoed those of several other FastFWD founders, who said the business rigor of the program was top-notch — it helped them figure out how to monetize and how to scale — but that the procurement emphasis was lacking.
It seemed like FastFWD was fighting a losing battle against city bureaucracy, one founder said.
Jon Kaufman, cofounder of Media In Neighborhoods Group, said it seemed like FastFWD was fighting a losing battle against legacy city processes: though the FastFWD leaders did “everything under the sun” to help the startups cut through the red tape, it felt like “there was a bigger machine running that wasn’t quite running at the same speed as they were.”
He added: “There wasn’t a whole lot of transparency about how it all worked, how they were going to choose [who would get] the contract, who was making those decisions.”
Some of the gripes from FastFWD entrepreneurs point to a natural growing pain: the program is still working out its identity.
SHIFT_DESIGN founder Mario Gentile said he felt blindsided by the procurement aspect of the program. The way it was sold, he said, was that the program “was about public safety, period.”
“Then it morphed,” he said.
'I'm not about to jump through a million hoops for a $30,000 contract,' said one founder.
Though Gentile identified a clear buyer in the city for his pop-up buildings that aim to revitalize vacant lots (the Philadelphia Water Department), he didn’t receive the city contract and said he was confused as to what the city was looking for. Maybe it would have been easier to get a city contract without FastFWD, he said.
“Quite candidly, they didn’t have enough money,” he said. “I’m not about to jump through a million hoops for a [$30,000] contract.”
York’s emphasis on the contract size doesn’t jibe with how FastFWD leaders said they wanted the program to be more about using the city to run an experimental pilot, rather than the typical city-vendor relationship. It suggests that FastFWD needs to do a better job of defining itself and communicating what its goals are.
Then there was the RFP itself: a 41-page document — filled with “legal mumbo jumbo,” as Kaufman put it, — due at 11:59 p.m. on the same day as the culminating demo day.
Bellows said that’s something FastFWD is working out: “What does a great RFP for a pilot look like?”
They’re also working on shortening the time it takes between the city awarding a contract and the point where it actually starts running. It’s taken four months for the three FastFWD contracts to go live, Bellows said.
But one of the top-level wins, according to Textizen CEO Lee, the FastFWD directors and one Harvard research fellow, centers around the philosophy behind the RFP.
A leading effort winning the city attention.
Generally, city RFPs ask for a specific solution to a problem. We need billing software and this is how it should look and what it should do, for example. With FastFWD, the RFP called for collaboration around a problem, Lee said.
“It was one of the first in the country to invite solutions around this topic,” Lee said.
The program also helped out-of-town entrepreneurs get a foot in the door, said Brian Hill, the Chicago-based CEO of Jail Education Solutions.
“Think about RFPs and who gets them — it’s the local guys, because they know the right people, and that’s just how it works,” Hill told Governing Magazine.
But FastFWD “opened the right doors” and helped him get a crucial introduction to Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla, Hill told Technical.ly Philly. Philadelphia inmates will be able to use Jail Education Solutions’ educational software on tablets this fall.
Looking ahead, FastFWD hopes to take these wins and lessons learned and “institutionalize” them throughout the city in ways that can live beyond the accelerator, Bellows said.
The $1 million in Bloomberg Foundation funding runs out at the end of this second class, however, and it’s not clear yet what’s next for FastFWD, Melby said.