Mayor Gray visits 1776. Photo by the author.

DC has lavished attention and subsidies on a few tech companies to bolster its economy. But the growth of tech firms in and around Dupont Circle suggests that investing in an attractive urban space is a more effective way to grow a local tech scene.

DC has a flourishing tech scene, as seen in the growth of several coworking spaces, where startups can get work done and find community. There are 5 in DC, 4 of which are in or near Dupont Circle, as are several other tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator.

Mayor Gray has visited one of these spots, 1776, 4 times, and given it $380,000 in grants.  1776 is a fantastic coworking space whose leadership is committed to supporting startups.

But does the District attract tech companies because we subsidize firms like 1776 and LivingSocial that claim to be hubs of talent and capital? Or is it because we have invested for a decade in urban amenities and density that attracts talent and capital to places like Dupont Circle, as Richard Florida argues?

Dupont Circle has emerged as the hub of the DC tech cluster. Besides Canvas and 1776, Affinity Lab on U Street, and PunchRock in Adams Morgan provide coworking space. Several tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator also reside in the Dupont Circle area.

This cluster emerged without government assistance or backing. 1776 is an exciting coworking space that I hope is successful, but the startups laboring in these other coworking spaces seem to be just as critical to diversifying our tax base.

Florida, who opposed Gray’s subsidy to LivingSocial last year, argues that our urban core is responsible for attracting the talent and capital that have made our tech sector thrive:

Today venture capital investment and startup activity also reflect the turn back to the urban core; nearly half of the [Washington] region’s total (47.5 percent), or $600 million, went to the District of Columbia proper. Most of that was concentrated in a single zip code (20005) that spans McPherson Square, Thomas Circle and Logan Circle.

While Gray expresses support for DC’s tech sector, it sometimes looks like a search for a North Star he can follow, like Living Social, by providing subsidies and personal encouragement. Rather, tech clusters naturally emerge in dense urban areas that attract smart young people, with no single company as the hub. 

Dupont-area Tech Firms. Green: Coworking spaces. Blue: Incubators. Red: Tech Startups.

I work 2 days per week at Canvas, a coworking space in Dupont Circle. I see startups there working all-nighters to build their businesses.

At minimum, it would be incredibly encouraging for more of DC’s startups to get a visit from the mayor. After all, we are relying on all of these startups to diversify DC’s economy beyond dependence on the federal government. After a recent tweet from Gray about visiting 1776, I replied asking why he hadn’t visited any other coworking spaces.

However, DC angel investor and entrepreneur Glen Helmen recently questioned whether Gray’s involvement in the tech sector is broad enough.

 

It’s great that Mayor Gray is looking for investment opportunities in DC tech.  And we all want 1776 and LivingSocial to be wildly successful, as they are prominent contributors to the local tech sector.

But most startups came here or decided to stay here because they like DC, not because of subsidies or Living Social or 1776.  Doesn’t that tell us what our strength is that we should build upon?

A better way to support and nourish the city’s tech scene would be to encourage the creation of a great urban environment, by continuing the same investments in transportation and public amenities and housing and commercial space that the city has been doing for the past decade. That way, companies will have even more reasons to come here, and those who already like it will have more reasons to stay.

In the meantime, Mayor Gray would do well to show his support for all local tech companies, not just those he has strategically invested in. If he wants to visit other coworking spaces and tech firms, the mayor has a standing invitation from Canvas, and presumably from every other coworking spot.