Maryland startup lands $1.2 million seed round to monitor and predict government decisions

September 13, 2013

It’s the million-dollar question in Washington: What is the government going to do next?

In Tim Hwang’s case, though, the answer is worth closer to $1.2 million.

That’s the amount of seed funding Hwang and his two co-founders got last week for their technology start-up, FiscalNote, which uses data-mining software and artificial intelligence to predict future government actions; for instance, whether legislation will pass or a regulatory proposal will be approved.

For the past three months, the company has been working out of an office in Silicon Valley, pitching to investors and recruiting computer engineers. Now, with funding in hand and a team of nine, they are moving their venture back to Maryland.

“On the West Coast, the advantages are definitely financing and talent,” Hwang said in an interview, noting that his company recently closed up shop in California and is moving into its new office in Bethesda — a short drive from where all three founders went to Rockville’s Wootton High School.

“Now, we’re coming back to D.C. and the East Coast because that’s where our customers are,” he said. “We can always fly back to the Bay Area if we need more engineers or more funding, but during the early days for a start-up, it’s critical to be close to your customers.

Hwang started working on FiscalNote after serving as president of the National Youth Association, a lobbying group for millennials, and working as a field organizer for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008. Keeping track of all the developments at various local and state governments, he said, meant stationing dozens of interns at computer screens, asking them to continuously refresh the feeds from every government Web site.

“If you look at finance today, we can get in-depth stock and trade updates and analysis every quarter of a second, and it doesn’t make sense to not have the same type of real-time information about what’s happening in the government,” he said.

Hwang brought on his former high school friends, chief finance officer Gerald Yao and chief technology officer Jonathan Chen, to start improving the process using technology.

Step one, he said, was building a data-mining program that would constantly scan every state government’s Web site, collecting the latest information about legislation and regulations and pulling it into a single database. The program then categorizes the data based on which industries would be most affected by the proposals.

Next, the team created an algorithm that takes into account demographic information about electoral districts, lawmakers’ voting history and campaign finance data to determine the likelihood that a bill or regulation will be approved. So far, the founders claim the formula has yielded an accuracy rate in excess of 90 percent.

“We can get down to a pretty granular level in terms of which legislators are going to vote which way on any given bill,” Hwang said, adding that those type of forecasts have traditionally required expert political analysts. “By automating some of these processes, more time and resources can be spent actually analyzing these decisions ahead of time and what they will mean for a particular industry.”

Right now, the team is focused on collecting and analyzing information at the state and local level, he said, noting that between 200,000 and 300,000 bills are proposed in state governments during any given year, about 100 times the volume of legislation introduced annually in Congress.

“There’s no way anyone can manually organize or read through 300,000 bills,” he said.

In May, the company added Chris Lu, another Wootton graduate and former White House cabinet secretary under President Obama, to its advisory board.

“There really is a hole in terms of coverage of state and local policy issues right now, and there’s just no good way to track all the information available in real time,” said Lu, who spoke at Hwang’s high school graduation just four years ago. “I think there are a lot of people and a lot of companies that can benefit from this service.”

The team is currently testing their service with a number of large corporations and advocacy groups (the executives declined to identify their beta testers, citing confidentiality agreements). The idea is sell the firm’s information and predictive services using a subscription model to private firms, lobbying organizations, government agencies or any group with a vested interest in the latest developments across various governments.

Some of the target consumers will be those in heavily regulated sectors such as public finance, energy and pharmaceuticals, as well as any firms that operate across several states.

“Government affairs offices and general counsel offices in Fortune 500 companies are the last departments that have yet to be disrupted by technology,” Hwang said. “Sales, marketing, accounting — all of them have evolved, yet there’s still very little minute-to-minute government information readily available.”

FiscalNote’s seed capital came from Mark Cuban, a business magnate and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, as well as venture capital firms New Enterprise Associates in Chevy Chase and First Round Capital in San Francisco. It will be used primarily to hire additional business development professionals and software engineers, as the company looks to double or triple in size by the middle of next year.

“It’s a lot harder finding very natural-language computer engineers in this area, so we’ll be out there recruiting around the country, trying to bring people to D.C.,” Hwang said, adding that the firm will likely seek another round of capital infusion sometime in 2014.

In an e-mail, Cuban called the relocation a “great move for the company,” partly because “there is a great work ethic in the technology industry in D.C.”

“They are now right in the middle of their customer base,” he added.

Down the road, the founders also plan to expand internationally. They have already started building interest in the United Kingdom and the European Union, where many multinational corporations need to keep tabs on regulatory developments in various governments across the continent.

“If they can pull together what they are trying to pull together, I think this will scale very fast,” Lu said.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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