The Download: The third Digital Capital Week coincides with presidential election

November 11, 2012

Digital Capital Week brought technologists and entrepreneurs from around the region and nation to Washington last week, a time when the rest of the country flocked to the polls to decide which politicians to send here.

That decision was deliberate. Using technology for social and civic good has been an unofficial theme at Digital Capital Week since it first debuted three years ago. That’s just woven into the fabric of Washington.

The election served to heighten that this year. On Tuesday, attendees hosted watch parties as results rolled in. On Thursday, speakers addressed social media and the election, and how for-profit companies can fulfill philanthropic missions.

Then Friday, a series of sessions called Reboot America discussed ways that technology can help solve the country’s persistent challenges, such as academic competitiveness, good governance and health care.

“If we did it before the election, I wonder if it would have been as substantive,” said Peter Corbett, chief executive at the creative agency iStrategyLabs, one of the event’s organizers. “It would have been a lot of guessing. After we know what happened, now we’re the first analysis.”


Digital Capital Week took place in Arlington, Va. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

Still, festivals of this nature tend to raise more questions than they answer. That’s part of the point: Bring a bunch of smart minds and hard workers into a single space, fill their brains with ambitious ideas and then see if anything comes out of it.

A “hackathon” that took place Nov. 3 and 4 accomplished just that. Teams of entrepreneurs spent just more than 24 hours building ideas for new applications. Some built political apps. Others built disaster-relief tools that could help Hurricane Sandy victims.

A crowd favorite was a voice-enabled app that assists chefs in the kitchen so they don’t have to thumb their smartphones phones with messy hands.

Friday’s Reboot America, a summit organized by Startup D.C. and the Startup America Partnership, marked the week’s most Washington-centric event. Speakers included Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Elected officials took an increased interest in the nation’s entrepreneurs during Obama’s first term, saying the young companies would generate the bulk of net new jobs as the economic recovery continues.

That came to a head with the passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, which aims to help young ventures find new sources of funding while also lessening regulatory burdens.

Warner told the crowd that addressing the pending “fiscal cliff” would take precedence to legislation that benefits entrepreneurs, but he hopes Congress can tackle reform for highly skilled immigrants, among other policies.

Reboot America then put forth some solutions already under way, companies such as Ruck.us, which connects people with similar political opinions, or Pengo Loans, which links investors with businesses in emerging markets that require debt financing.

D.C. Week organizers predicted las Thursday that attendance will be 10 percent higher than last year’s total of just more than 10,000. That includes attendees at the festival’s massive opening and closing parties.

“I think we feel really good about what we’re building here,” said Jen Consalvo, who runs event co-organizer Tech Cocktail along with Frank Gruber. “It’s in our nature to want to do bigger, better, more. We’ll get there. Every year it’s a steady improvement.”

Added Corbett: “People said we were either stupid or brilliant to do this with the election in the middle of it. I think it worked.”

overlys@washpost.com

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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