Sacramento Chief Innovation Officer Abhi Nemani is laying the groundwork for a new $10 million program to boost the startup community in California’s capital city.
The Office of Innovation aims to help new companies create 500 startup jobs in the next five years. It was the brainchild of the city’s outgoing mayor, who brought in Abhi Nemani — Los Angeles’ first chief data officer and a former Code for America co-executive director — on a short-term contract to set up the office.
While Nemani is slated to leave in December (he’s currently hiring his replacement), the project appears to be moving forward: The Sacramento City Council recently approved a spending plan for the new office. And Pierre Balthazard, the dean of the College of Business at California State University who has been supporting the city’s efforts to stand up the office, told StateScoop the incoming Mayor Darrell Steinberg is “1,000 percent behind” it.
StateScoop caught up with Nemani, who says he’s set up more than 20 government innovation offices while at Code for America, to discuss what makes this project unique and how the city plans to encourage the city’s startups.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.
StateScoop: What’s been the biggest challenge for you on this project?
Abhi Nemani: It’s a different take on an innovation office. So most cities, when they look at supporting innovation, think about internal culture or process change. And that’s a part of what we’re doing but not the whole picture — and in fact, not the focus.
The focus here is on supporting the startup and innovation ecosystem within the city community at large, not City Hall, so that means working hand in hand with accelerator programs, with training programs.
That’s a pretty big mandate and, of course, there’s lots of proven ideas on how to do that from a traditional economic development perspective, but thinking about how to do that creatively and nimbly without building a whole new department, instead just supporting it through strategic efforts has been an interesting and exciting challenge.
SS: How did you and current Mayor Kevin Johnson get together on this project?
AN: So Mayor Johnson has been working on his Economic Development 3.0 strategy for some time now, and it’s all come together in this Innovation Office. He and I met a couple years back at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event where I was presenting some innovations I was working on in other cities. He and his staff and I have kept in contact since then.
Once I left LA, my focus is how to help other cities build innovation capacity … how do we get places like Sacramento, of that size, supporting innovation through technology and entrepreneurship. And the mayor, as he was settling on his vision for Economic Development 3.0, decided that he wanted to commit this broader innovation growth fund to innovation and startups and reached out to me, and we started talking about the different models that are out there, the things that are going on and eventually he asked me to help set this up.
For me, it was exciting because it becomes a good example of how to build one of these innovation offices and hopefully a reusable model for other cities.
SS: What are you working on before you’re expected to leave in December?
AN: When I say setting up I mean like literally, I’m hired to build the office and then hire someone full time to replace me. I’m hired as a consultant technically to come in as their chief innovation officer to get things off the ground, thinking about policies and the staffing plan.
SS: Have you reached out to the community?
AN: The mayor built a Mayor’s Innovation Leadership Council, which consists of all the top leaders within the community when it comes to startups. I’ve spent a lot of time while I’ve been there, talking to those folks and getting their feedback.
I’d basically distill it in terms of when I asked them what do we need to do as a city to support entrepreneurship in the region there’s three things: One is drive new venture capital, particularly early stage venture capital so that companies coming out of the great universities there have the resources to stay there, two is building out a more robust talent pipeline, making sure they have good people to hire and three is making it a little bit easier to work with City Hall so that can be things like permitting, open data. We really built our strategy around those three pillars.
SS: How is Sacramento funding this?
AN: The broader funding that we allocated for these efforts is $10.2 million in just a general pot of money. In terms of recurring spending for programs we put together, it’s going to be about $2 million a year and — just to put that in perspective — LA’s innovation fund is $1 million, so the city is making a pretty bold commitment to entrepreneurship.
The dollars were actually old redevelopment agency funds that hadn’t been deployed for a couple of years, which is why the broader number is $10.2 million. The reason we set it up like that is because we have a pretty good sense of recurring revenue coming from a tax increment base that will fund that specific fund. It’s not general fund money. It’s a special fund, so we’re making sure everything fits within that $2 million, that way it keeps going on. It’s not just a one-time flash in the pan.
SS: What else should we look out for?
AN: One of the concrete program elements we are building is the RAILS program, it stands for Rapid Acceleration, Innovation and Leadership in Sacramento. It’s up to $1.5 million in funding overall, in lots of different grants to startup enablers.
The acronym stands for the different areas that we’re looking at: Leadership is things like training in how to code or how to run a business, innovation is co-working spaces or Meetups where people can come together and build a team, and acceleration is the more traditional accelerator/incubator program that takes an existing team and helps them get to scale. Instead of saying we’re going to build just one accelerator, we’re saying everyone apply to this program with your great ideas, and we’re going to pick the top five or 10 of them to invest in, so it’s like Moneyball for innovation.
SS: Do you have a short list of people to replace you?
AN: Not yet, we’re in the process of finalizing a job description and getting it out there to get feedback. It’s a little early yet.