Local innovators aim for access to city contracts through new firm – Metro US

Local innovators aim for access to city contracts through new firm

Two years of relentless work laid in Varun Adibhatla’s hand in the shape of a 3D-printed black box.

Inside it lies all the hardware necessary that he and fellow recent grad Graham Henke hope can help local government to actually deal with the hundreds of thousands of potholes reported every year.

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The only catch is if the two 30-year-old men with freshly printed graduate degrees from New York University’s applied urban science program can get it into the hands of City of New York workers.

Local governments are not particularly speedy when it comes to adopting technology, much less cutting-edge tech. There’s usually a lengthy, complicated and often times expensive proposal process to get in on the $17 billion the city spends on contracts every year on everything from public WiFi networks to notepads.

“Once the city decides to take on a project, the whole process can take two to three years before you have the thing in production,” Henke said. “That’s a whole technology cycle.”

But Adibhatla and Henkehope to speed up the process through the city’s new partnership with Citymart, a Manhattan-based firm devoted to pitching municipal problems towards the men and women who can best solve them.

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City officials said Citymart’s $180,000 contract with the de Blasio administration doesn’t replace the existing contract process. Instead, it will specifically offer five as-of-yet-undetermined challenges presented in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC sustainability and growth plan.

The city’s Director of Innovation Jeff Merritt said he hopes the city can soon expect novel solutions to ongoing issues New Yorkers grapple with by providing a wider pool of problem solvers an open-ended question.

“This approach is about presenting the problem and asking for the best ideas to solve it, versus prescribing the exact deliverable,” Merritt told Metro of Citymart’s methods.

Founded by Sascha Haselmayer and his wife Julia, Citymart aims to short-circuit the typical proposal process so as to get innovative ideas to help improve New Yorkers’ quality of life faster than ever.

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“We’re really redefining what problem-solving looks like,” Haselmayer said, adding that New York is the largest of the municipalities it’s working with in the United States, among them Boston. “The goal is to lower the entry barriers so people like Varun can show their solutions and make it a viable option.”

The prototype for Adibhatla and Henke’s Street Quality Identification Device — or SQUID — cost them about $200 to produce, soldering and printing materials themselves to collect raw data and take a picture every time it registers a pothole.

The city has already filled more than 370,000 potholes since Jan. 1 alone, and the de Blasio administration recently committed $242 million for street repavement through 2017.

Adibhatla and Henke made the case that tools like SQUIDcan provide a fuller picture of a problem through data, andcan potentially lead to longer-term solutions to prevent potholes.

That may someday translate more on other priorities like funding for mass transit or schools, Adibhatla said, broader issues that affect all New Yorkers.

Both men look forward to the relationship between the city and Citymart as a means to open doors for groups like theirs — Advanced Research In Government Operations, or ARGO Labs — be competitive in a crowded tech market.

“We could actually make a living by improving our living,” Adibhatla said.