Palo Alto is no stranger to game-changing technologies, but life isn't always easy for local startups looking to City Hall for support.
The city currently receives dozens of applications a year from technologists and entrepreneurs looking to partner with the city on pilot projects, most of which deal with sustainability or energy efficiency. One company, People Power, has recently partnered with the city to install devices in people's homes that allow residents to monitor energy usage in real time. Another company, OPower, was commissioned last year to supply Palo Alto's utilities customers with data comparing their electricity bills to those of their neighbors.
These companies, however, are the exception. In the vast majority of the cases, these applications languish away in Utilities or Public Works cabinets because the city has no formal mechanism for vetting them, said Jonathan Foster, chair of the city's Utilities Advisory Commission. These applications arrive to departments without solicitation, Foster said, and in most cases, "they basically die."
"The Utility Department doesn't have the staff to process these kids of requests and act upon them," Foster said.
City leaders now hope to change all that.
The city manager's office is now crafting a policy that officials hope will help nurture green startups, provide benefits to the city and further bolster Palo Alto's reputation as a hotbed of innovation. The policy would, for the first time, formalize and streamline the process by which green firms can team up with the city.
The goal is to minimize waste and make the process more efficient, said Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic-development manager. Rather than going to specific departments on an ad hoc basis, applications would be collected in the city manager's office and evaluated based on their costs and potential benefits.
"We get a lot of requests from all over the organization, at every different level," Fehrenbach said. "This is our attempt to bring it under a process."
The initiative, which the City Council Policy and Services Committee discussed Tuesday night (Sept. 13), could include providing partnering firms with "access to city land, facilities, equipment, right-of-ways, and/or city data," Fehrenbach wrote in a report. Potential partnership would undergo a cost-benefit analysis and could include financial assistance from the city.
"It is envisioned that this Policy will allow the City to take advantage of opportunities to test emerging technologies, products, and service innovations," Fehrenbach wrote. "Moreover, it seeks to provide a structure for engaging companies either at an early phase of development, attempting to fulfill an identified need of the City, or seeking to demonstrate the potential effectiveness of an innovative product or service."
The council committee generally supported the concept but urged staff to further refine the policies and to include guidelines protecting residents' privacy and minimizing risk to the city. Councilman Larry Klein urged staff to consider the public's right to use city facilities before agreeing to lend them to partner firms.
The committee also agreed that the partnerships should aim to bring tangible benefits to the city, whether in energy efficiency, improved services or other types of cost savings.
"If we're putting in some cash, we should be looking at some kind of benefit in exchange," Klein said.
Councilman Pat Burt agreed and said that while supporting local startups might be beneficial in itself, the greater purpose is to find successful technologies that the city can then adopt on a larger scale. Councilwoman Gail Price called the policy a "great start" but joined other committee members in calling for refinements to the proposed policy.
Councilwoman Karen Holman was more skeptical than her colleagues. Though Holman said she supports working with local businesses and helping to forge partnerships, she also expressed concern about the policy drafted by staff, which she said does not do enough to explain what the city hopes to get out of these partnerships.
"It's almost like the city is acting like an angel investor and it's very uncomfortable to me," Holman said.
City Manager James Keene agreed with the committee that the partnerships should not be merely altruistic, but should provide the city with a useful product or service. He noted that the city is already a center of creativity "with lots of trials and startups going on."
"We're not going to do things just to help someone out," Keene said. "(If) we think this will have some benefit to the city -- let's take a look at it."