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Steve Case gets another Washington job: Startup America chairman

By Steven Overly
Monday, February 7, 2011; 6

Don't expect to read the name of AOL co-founder Steve Case on any election ballots or find it among a list of Obama administration officials. Despite his increasing presence in federal initiatives, the Internet mogul and venture capitalist advises he does not have "visions of changing stripes."

The White House appointed Case last week to chair the Startup America Partnership, an effort to increase private sector investment in new business ventures as part of the administration's attempt to create jobs and grow the economy through entrepreneurs.

Though Case views the voluntary role as a way to pay-it-forward for the success he has enjoyed as a businessman and investor, he acknowledges that his proximity to Washington has made him more receptive to the public sector than some similarly high-profile counterparts in Silicon Valley.

"It's more of a pragmatic view," he said. "I think the fact that I've lived here more than half my life . . . I think that probably makes it a little easier to understand the importance of engagement.

"People in Palo Alto [Calif.] may run into other entrepreneurs down the street. Here, you're just as likely to run into people involved in influencing policy," he continued.

The position adds a second government title to Case's résumé: In July he was one of three co-chairmen appointed to the Commerce Department's National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The group is charged with advising the government on policies that could help bring innovative technologies to market.

Case was also nominated to serve on the Smithsonian's board of regents last week. He still needs a stamp of approval from the White House and Congress.

After leaving AOL, Case started a foundation to foster technological innovation and established an investment arm called Revolution. Its portfolio contains LivingSocial, Zipcar and Clearspring, among others.

His chairmanship of the Startup America Partnership may have Case acting as one of the initiative's most visible champions. After participating in the program's launch at the White House, he conducted a string of interviews with national media outlets.

Case said he will spend part of each day interacting primarily with other investors and business leaders, persuading them to pledge time and money to help start-ups grow ideas into products and products into job-generating companies.

Several major corporations have already signed on, including Intel, which committed to investing $200 million in start-ups, and IBM, which will put $150 million toward mentorship programs. Facebook will host 12 start-up days this year to make its engineers and other staff available to entrepreneurs.

Many entrepreneurs running start-ups out of their garages or basements are likely to benefit most from local or regional incubators, education programs and funding that Case said he hopes will expand or be created now that they're united by a national banner.

"I don't think we have to reinvent the wheel here," he said. "There are examples of programs that work. We just have to bring them more attention."

Some in Washington's tech community are already moving to take advantage, rebranding previously announced efforts as part of Startup America. A start-up accelerator program set for the end of the month and a D.C. tech meet up in early March will likely carry the Startup America name, said iStrategyLabs and D.C. Week producer Peter Corbett.

A slew of federal agencies also plan to create programs for entrepreneurs, particularly those with clean energy and veteran-owned companies. The initiative proposes changes to capital gains taxes and tax credits, though many of those efforts are aimed at low-income communities.

John Backus, a managing partner at venture capital firm New Atlantic Ventures in Reston, expressed disappointment that the initiatives were broad and many came with conditions. One large change in policy would likely do more to spur entrepreneurship and venture capital investments, he said.

"I saw 26 separate little things that the government and private sector are doing, none of which are bad things, but none of which are big things," Backus said. "It's better to do one big thing really well than lots of little things."

Case said policy will not be a focus of his position, but the initiative's mandate will likely evolve as others put forth ideas.

"The Startup America effort will have a broader impact and will likely influence some policy, but it's not really designed around policy per se," Case said. "Our focus is really outside of the government infrastructure [and] taking an entrepreneurial approach."

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