Mapping the Network: Finding Your Local Startups
Quick test: How much do you know about your city’s startup community? Do you know who your most successful startups are? Do you know where in the city they’re based? Do you know the companies’ histories and where they’re trying to go in the future?
Some of you may know this information pretty well; others, barely at all. If you’re among the latter, you may find that learning more about startups in your city isn’t always easy. Often, we don’t hear about our most innovative homegrown businesses until they’ve already morphed into major companies.
Yet, if the Digital Revolution is all about providing easier access to information, the startup community—the leaders of this revolution—should set the example by finding an easy way for outsiders to learn more about who its members are and the solutions they’re building.
Our Innovation that Matters report, unveiled last month, aims to help accomplish that goal. Innovation that Matters highlights the state of civic entrepreneurship in eight U.S. cities. In our research, we found that one of the biggest challenges to creating vibrant civic startup ecosystems is the lack of information about local startups. This disconnect makes it hard for other actors in the community to connect with startups and provide assistance that helps the startups grow. What can be done to change this?
In recent years, some startup communities have embraced mapping as a way to create a centralized database with information for outsiders to access. Two good examples include StartupAmsterdam in the Netherlands and SanPedroValley in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
We figured, why not give mapping a try for ourselves?
We picked two cities from the Innovation that Matters report—New York and Austin—and used the Mattermark database to identify the top 20 performing companies in each of our industries: education, energy, health, and cities and transportaion. Then, we looked up the companies’ addresses and threw them into a geomapping tool to create a heatmap. (Click the links to access the full map.)
What does our mapping tell us?
On a basic level, these maps show us where to find clusters of startup activity. As one might expect, startups in Austin tend to cluster in the downtown area, while those in New York City cluster in midtown Manhattan. Few appear in Brooklyn, a surprise given the borough’s reputation as a hipster tech hub.
But more importantly, the maps shows us just how much activity is going on; small, aspiring companies with big dreams to change the world pop up all over both cities. This isn’t limited to tech hubs like Austin and New York: Similar mapping exercises in other cities would reveal the extent to which civic entrepreneurship is spreading all over the globe.
But why does this even matter?
Our overarching conclusion from Innovation that Matters is that the secret sauce of building civic startup clusters is to create network connectivity. Cities can do that by connecting the dots between entrepreneurs, public institutions, investors, established businesses, government, research institutions, and other actors in the ecosystem, in order to foster an open, collaborative community in which people can freely exchange ideas and work together to develop new solutions to existing problems.
In order to do this, however, these actors need to know what the ecosystem currently looks like—who is working on what, how far along they are in their work, what their motivations are, and what opportunities exist for collaboration. Mapping the network to understand these dynamics is a first basic step in the process of building an effective community.
Our maps above are pretty basic; they just show a collection of locations of civic sector startups in each city. Yet, there are many ways to build on these maps to turn them into useful tools. Imagine layering on more detailed information about each company: what it’s building, who’s on the team, what stage of growth they are at, what needs they have, etc. Then, we could add information about other ecosystem actors. In education, for example, you could show the major ed tech investors, innovation leads in schools and universities, education research institutions, nonprofit advocacy groups, education corporations and others. There are many ways to build out mapping tools, but the basic concept is to increase the community’s awareness of itself and to help people connect with each other and exchange information more easily.
Mapping by itself isn’t sufficient; it’s up to the community to take the information and use it for practical purposes, such as convening sessions and action-oriented programs. However, it is a useful first step that more and more communities are embracing as a way to drive local innovation to improve the lives of local citizens.