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Looking to start a company this year? Focus on solving a problem.

By Elana Fine,

As 2012 rolled to a close, we neared our breaking point. Tragedy, looming economic meltdown, social upheaval — the world has enough problems and the Washington region is far from insulated. We need to start addressing problems the best way we know how: with business solutions. Let’s make 2013 the year we dig in to create entrepreneurial answers to our region’s biggest problems. Here are the top seven problems that need solutions — the areas where entrepreneurs should be spending their time and investors should be spending their money:

1Structural unemployment and workforce dropouts. We know our workforce isn’t sufficiently trained for the high tech/high growth jobs that improve productivity and increase wages. Our unemployed workers may not have the skills or confidence to start their own businesses, yet we need more small businesses to jump-start our economy. How do we train and inspire our workforce to be entrepreneurs? What will give companies or individuals incentive to invest in training? What role can/should start-ups and technology play in getting people back to work?

2 Delivery of affordable health care and education. Education and health care are typically in separate buckets, but they face similar problems such as rising costs, overcrowding and changing customer demographics. Technology can increase access and decrease costs for both, whether through massive open online courses or virtual medical clinics in rural areas. Which business models and innovations will win to enhance learning or improve care?

3 Safety. We used to say better, faster, cheaper. But now we need to add safer. We face threats to our security and privacy as well as our health and safety. How can we innovate to better protect ourselves as well as our food and drug supply? Corporations are on a data collection spree. What advances in hardware and software will improve storage, security and analytics to handle this deluge of data?

4 Mobile productivity. Tablet adoption continues to increase, particularly within organizations. We can work anywhere, but the current systems of data entry and file access impede productivity on the go. Who will crack the code in voice recognition, tablet keypads and enterprise mobile apps so we don’t need our laptops and our iPads?

5 Crumbling water infrastructure. Our pipes are cracking, our water is polluted and current treatment costs are unsustainable. What systems can be developed to capture, treat and recycle water? Can we build a “smart water grid” that will better manage supply, demand and use?

6 Government efficiency. Help governments help themselves. Instead of asking the government to solve problems, let’s develop systems to improve efficiency and better collaborate. How can we change the mind-set of more federal agencies to be early adopters of technology? What distribution channels can better connect them to leading edge start-ups?

7 Veterans. Our veterans are returning from war and are ready to get to work. How do we help companies understand the skill sets of our veterans and how that expertise can translate into the private sector? Likewise, how do we enhance the skills of our troops so veterans understand how their knowledge and experience translates into something greater than what occurs on the battlefield?

All of these problems — and countless others — offer opportunities for entrepreneurs. And Washington is a prime location to take on some of these issues, with its confluence of government power, federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, defense industry players, serial entrepreneurs, powerhouse corporations and top universities.

If you’re looking to start a company this year, address a problem. This should be the first step in any venture creation, but we’re challenging you to tackle one of these big problems. Then you can move to the phases where you’ll assess the market, talk to competitors, create your solution, test it, and hopefully scale up and attract investors.

The advice runs true for investors, too. If you have cash to invest, stop looking for the next “hot” deal. Put your money in the ventures that have tested, scalable solutions to real problems because that’s where you’ll eventually get the greatest returns.

This year, we’ll be looking out for the companies with big answers. If you have one you’d like to share, let us know. Let’s see if 2013 can be the year entrepreneurs solved Washington’s biggest problems.

Elana Fine is managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She regularly offers her expertise to entrepreneurs starting and growing businesses. Capital Business and the experts at the Dingman Center and the Smith School are ready to assist entrepreneurs looking for advice. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.

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