A new incubator wants to help poli-tech startups overcome one of their biggest obstacles: finding funding. But there’s a catch. The companies have to operate exclusively on the left.
Partisanship is often seen as a non-starter for VCs looking to invest in technology startups, in part, because it may complicate its growth by limiting the company’s potential market. On the other hand, new firms that do go non-partisan may struggle to takeoff as it isn’t easy to make inroads with both sides of the aisle.
Betsy Hoover, one of the co-founders of Higher Ground Labs, said the challenges non-partisans face make picking a side the better option. And she’s hoping her new venture — armed with a $1-million investment fund — can help sway more companies to dedicate themselves to the progressive cause.
“From a business perspective, we see it’s pretty hard to play both sides as a vendor,” she said. “It’s better to pick one side or another.”
Hoover’s group also zeros out another problem that poli-tech startups have: potential investors not understanding the business of campaigns.
“We’re looking for investors that care about the progressive space and that care about electing Democrats,” she said. “We’re thinking about this as an impact investment.”
Partisan technology on the left is still dominated by a single company, NGP VAN, which has an exclusive relationship with the DNC. Hoover said Democrats having a discussion about the future of that NGP VAN-DNC relationship is “definitely a piece of the puzzle.”
“I think the party has a key role to play,” she added. “But I don’t think the party can be the sole innovator in this space.”
When it comes to applicants for the program, whose first acceptance window closes June 5, Hoover is looking at three criteria. Higher Ground is considering the problem the company is tackling, the team it’s assembled (a blend from Sillicon Valley and campaign pros is ideal, according to Hoover) and the product it's offering.
“I know that there are a lot of great ideas out there,” said Hoover. “I just think that people haven’t had a place to land. There’s just a really weak ecosystem around progressive political tech.”
Now, companies emboldened by the early months of the Trump Administration can find their footing with Hoover’s group. In addition to the funding, which the LLC provides in exchange for equity, Higher Group offers mentorship and coaching during a six-month Accelerator program.
Leadership of the selected companies will meet with Hoover, an Obama alum and founding partner at 270 Strategies, and her two partners, professor Andrew McLaughlin, investor Shomik Dutta, among other advisors, for three-five days a month to get coaching and provide progress updates. Higher Ground also has a three-month fellowship program, “where individuals get the time they need to develop an innovative product for progressive campaigns or causes.”
In addition to its investment fund that will be allocated through the accelerator program, Higher Ground has already backed some startups. It singled out Deck, in a release, noting that the company “has built a data-targeting tool that generates support and turnout scores for each voter in a district and can accurately forecast election outcomes more successfully than any polling.”
“This is the time when there’s an amazing amount of energy across the space,” said Hoover. “Now is the time to be pushing funding.”