SAN FRANCISCO -- Mayor Ed Lee's office is looking for high-tech solutions to some of the city's most pressing problems, from parking availability to affordable housing, and it's turning to the local startup community for help.
The city is accepting applications now through Feb. 18 for its Startup in Residence (STIR) program, which seeks to bring Silicon Valley innovation to the often neglected public sector. Selected startups will spend 16 weeks working closely with the city on their projects, leading up to a grand unveiling at the end of the program.
"There's a huge opportunity here for entrepreneurs," said Jay Nath, the chief innovation officer for the San Francisco mayor's office who is spearheading the STIR program.
Along the way, the startups will benefit from city-sponsored training on how to work for the government -- everything from understanding an RFP (request for proposal), to the importance of wearing a tie instead of a hoodie. But the program may also provide a lesson in the frustrations of working with slow-moving government entities. Several projects from the city's 2014 pilot program have yet to be implemented, leaving the entrepreneurs behind them to wait for the city to update its technology or clear a backlog of paperwork.
This year's applicants can choose projects from an online list of more than two dozen ideas. The city's diverse wish list includes an app that maps street parking spots, software that evaluates land for affordable housing potential, trash can sensors that measure waste disposal to promote better recycling and composting habits, an app that maps coyote sightings, a tool that helps inspectors evaluate city buildings after an earthquake and an app that makes it easier to recruit foster parents. Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento are participating, too -- thanks to a $500,000 federal grant that expanded the program last year -- and have submitted their own lists of issues. Oakland's wish list includes software that helps streamline landlord-tenant disputes and a tool that helps the Oakland Police Department respond more efficiently to citizen complaints.
While new technology has transformed everything from the automotive to the personal finance industries, the public sector often lags behind. The Internet has impacted government less than any other sector, including health care, education and security, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Mary Meeker reported last May in her firm's annual Internet Trends report.
Startups participating in the San Francisco program won't see any cash, at least not for the first year. The company must agree to give the city one free year of service. But in return, the startup gets the chance to showcase its skills.
"That was our chance to establish a presence in San Francisco, to make some contacts, to get into the industry, to meet people," said Stephanie Urbanski, CEO of 2014 program participant Indoo.rs. "So that was definitely and still is a great help."
Vienna-based Indoo.rs built a system that helps visually impaired passengers navigate San Francisco International Airport. Urbanski said Indoo.rs continues to get calls from potential clients based on that project.
San Francisco piloted its startup program in 2014. The city received nearly 200 applications from startups around the globe, and chose six to work on a range of promising projects. Interested startups can apply at startupinresidence.org.
But there is still work to be done on the 2014 projects. The San Francisco airport navigation system, for example, has been activated as a working prototype in Terminal 2 but hasn't become available to the public -- meaning Indoo.rs has yet to see a penny from the city.
The airport must install hundreds of Bluetooth beacons and correlate them to points of interest, such as water fountains and restaurants, before the system will work in all terminals, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel. It's a time-consuming undertaking, he said, adding it could be "many years" before the navigation system is fully operational.
Austin,Texas-based MobilePD has a similar story after creating an app that lets San Francisco police officers send digital information gathered during field interviews to headquarters. The project has been put on hold indefinitely as the police department navigates the city's strict procurement requirements, which mandate all contracts go through a fair and open bidding process, said MobilePD co-founder and CEO Kushyar Kasraie.
"There were some bottlenecks there," he said.
Marisa Kendall covers startups and venture capital. Contact her at 408-920-5009. Follow her at Twitter.com/marisakendall.