In a new recurring feature, First Read Tech will be talking to leaders in government and technology about the intersection of the two fields and how New York can lead through innovation. Today’s interview is with Robinson Hernandez, executive director of the Urban Tech Hub @ Company.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the Urban Tech Hub come to be?
We started the Urban Tech Hub in conjunction with the New York City Economic Development Corporation as a way of reinforcing the city’s smart cities/urban tech sector. The idea was that there’s a lot of development taking place (in cities like) Singapore, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, but we knew that we had enough of a concentration in New York; the goal was to find a way of reinforcing that – to support growth-stage companies, companies that are generally at seed or series A. They’ve raised some funding, they’re generating revenue, they’ve exited an accelerator incubator, but they’re now hitting this new stage in their development.
If some of these companies might have technology solutions for city problems, how do you connect them with government agencies?
I say this with my 11 years of background in city government: The challenge that government sometimes has is being able to explain what their challenge is, and then also engaging those partners that can help to solve for it. What we’ve done is served as a liaison to the tech industry to say, “OK, Department of Buildings, Department of Environmental Protection” – whoever it is – “here’s the challenge that you have. You’re not necessarily saying you want to deploy technology to solve for it, you’re in an investigative mode right now.” Where we help is to bridge that knowledge gap to say, “Hey, Department of Buildings, you want to learn more about LIDAR technology? Why don’t we organize a demo where we can bring companies to you to demo so that you can familiarize yourself a little bit more with what’s happening out there?”
What advice would you give to smaller tech companies that may struggle with getting government contracts, or even just getting their ideas in front of agencies?
In many cases, you have companies that are trying to accelerate the process and, unfortunately, aren’t familiar with how government works. You may have the eager beaver in government who’s your champion, who’s saying, “I want to move forward with this,” not realizing that they’re going to have to go through the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, the procurement system, and that setting up a meeting sometimes takes two to three weeks. Not because government itself wants to be slow, but because it also has to ensure that it’s a fair process, a transparent process. The second thing I would say is: Find your champions. Your champion isn’t necessarily the commissioner or the deputy commissioner. It may be the program manager who is working for government because they feel the passion, they feel the need to make positive change. Linking with them is key because those individuals may then know how to move the initiative through government. They may have the willingness to take on some of the challenges that internal government presents. It’s recognizing that everyone is important, but knowing who your champions are – and that’s not necessarily easy.
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