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The rise of the rest: DC's tech scene has density to thank

Donna Harris, Steve Case and Evan Burfield at the grand opening of 1776 DC, a tech center whose central location will provide density and 'the serendipity of a meeting or connection'

Jonathon Perrelli, founding partner of Fortify Ventures

Paul Singh

This piece by Allyson Jacob is a companion to the national spotlight story by the editor of Elevation's sister publication in Denver. After reading this piece, read the companion story that examines tech trends across the country in places like Pittsburgh, Denver and Baltimore.

The District's startup scene has been explosive, attracting innovators and disruptors in technology, transportation and other industries. D.C. Tech Meetup has nearly 7,000 entrepreneurs who gather on a monthly basis; the TechBreakfast series draws large crowds despite its early meeting time; and accelerators like Acceleprise, Exhilarator and Fortify Ventures are working hard to provide early stage funding and mentorship to startups in the area. A host of coworking spaces strive to keep rent low and productivity high; coworking groups like D.C. Night Owls and the massive Fosterly community provide plenty of camaraderie and opportunities for disruption. Productive relationships with the mayor of D.C. and the director of the D.C. Office of Planning have helped foster growth.

"[Density] allows for the serendipity of a meeting or a connection."
At the epicenter of the D.C. tech scene sits 1776, a new campus that provides an intersection for startups, coworking, acceleration, education, social events, political schmoozing (a necessity in this town) and simple interaction.

According to Paul Singh, D.C.-area native and cofounder of Silicon Valley­–based 500 Startups and founder of Dashboard, and Jonathon Perrelli, cofounder and manager of Fortify Ventures, it's the presence of a place like 1776, and the interactions that happen there, that give D.C. part of its unique role on the international startup stage.

Perrelli thinks that D.C. can learn from watching what goes on Silicon Valley, but he doesn't like to put the two cities next to each other. "I don't compare D.C. to Silicon Valley often…. If you're comparing apples to apples, the same exact company in Palo Alto [with talent coming from Stanford] and in D.C. [with talent coming from Georgetown], with the exact same concept, the valuation [of the company by venture capitalists] is going to be three to five times greater in Silicon Valley than in D.C."

The reason for the higher valuation, Perrelli says, is "a function of many things. To our detriment, there is more early-stage capital [in Silicon Valley]. … And Silicon Valley has assets and resources that [D.C.] won't ever have. "

"But," he continues, "D.C. has a very unique asset. We have density. Silicon Valley is dispersed over several cities. Density is the reason 1776 is such a powerful asset. It allows for the serendipity of a meeting or a connection."

"We are also one of the most powerful cities in the world. We have access to other countries through embassies." Perrelli explains that this access means ideas and technology can spread faster here, in person. Apps can jump across countries when two ambassadors are in the same room or at the same event.

"They were in ties last year, and they're in jeans and t-shirts this year."
Perrelli also believes that D.C.'s diverse human capital comes from what he calls the "ties to t-shirts" movement. "A lot of people come to D.C. as idealists. They want to make a difference." But, he explains, they end up as defense contractors and the projects they work on have "nothing to do with their life goals. They have skills as designers, developers, project managers or salespeople, and they continue to join startup land in droves. 1776 is a central place for them to come, plan, discuss problems and solve them. They were in ties last year, and they're in jeans and t-shirts this year."

Singh has spent the last five years working in and around Silicon Valley and is spending the summer in D.C. before making a final decision about relocating his family and his company to the East coast. While he is enthusiastic about D.C.'s talent pool and its potential, he sees it as a district divided.

"D.C. area has mini-communities, but it is hard to jump between them. Within the D.C. metro area, there are no good options for getting around." Singh would like to see a Google bus-style transportation option linking Arlington and D.C.

This kind of link, he believes, would help alleviate a divide he perceives between the D.C. and Virginia startup communities. "It's very 'us vs. them,'" Singh says. "A snarky, 'I don't cross the river' attitude.' We need to do something."

"D.C. has a strong engineering pool, a lot of money and a huge international airport," Singh explains. "It's a gateway of capital. But to its detriment, [the city] is very distributed. I firmly believe that innovation is a function of human interaction. We need things like 1776, places where teams can interact."

Read more articles by Allyson Jacob.

Allyson Jacob is a writer originally hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the Innovation and Job News editor for Elevation DC. Her work has been featured in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati CityBeat. Have a tip about a small business or start-up making waves inside the Beltway? Tell her here.
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