McNair Center Startup Ecosystems

Entrepreneurship for All: Washington D.C.

Washington, D.C. is known for its politicians and bureaucrats, but it’s also where the top-20 U.S. government contractors are based. In recent decades, high-tech, high-growth entrepreneurship has been on the rise in the U.S. capital. Startup ventures, coupled with a diverse economy, largely fueled by the federal government, have led D.C. to emerge as a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem.

History of Entrepreneurship

The diversified needs of the federal government have led to a varied ecosystem. Feldman 2001 concludes that two unique conditions impacted the development of D.C.’s entrepreneurial culture: underemployed skilled labor caused by federal job cuts and the commercial exploitation of intellectual property rights from publicly funded research.

Changes in federal employment policy through the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 led the federal government to outsource goods and services in an effort to reduce civil service jobs.

The Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 created the Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) as a mechanism whereby nonfederal entities can collaborate with federal laboratories on research and development projects. CRADAs aim to promote technological competitiveness and technology transfer to marketable products.

Biotech found a partner in the federal government through CRADAs. Proximity to federal labs has created an important biotechnology cluster attracting Merck and Pfizer among others, as well as startups MedImmune and Human Genome Sciences, later acquired by GlaxoSmithKline.

Other notable startups that emerged under the public-private sector collaboration include Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, Inc. (SGT), who provides scientific and IT service solutions to a wide array of federal government agencies nationwide including NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Government outsourcing opportunities benefitted the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry. The earliest ITC entrepreneurs were government contractors, who began working on ARPANET, the predecessor of the internet.

When the federal government removed the commercial restriction on the use of internet in 1989, former contractors became tech startups with ample opportunities to grow their ventures.

Resources in D.C.

AOL is a prominent ICT company launched in the D.C. metropolitan area during the 1990s dot-com boom. AOL is also credited for shaping the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Prior to its relocation to Manhattan, AOL funded Fishbowl Labs, a business incubator located at its Dulles campus. Fishbowl Labs provides resources to startups at no cost and a mentorship program through its employee network.

The company also invested in firms such as the D.C.-based tech hub incubator 1776. The incubator is modeled after 1871 in Chicago and the General Assembly incubator in New York. Notable companies currently working with 1776 include Babyscripts, Cowlar and MUrgency. 1776 organizes networking events for the government innovator community to promote the interconnectivity of startups and D.C.’s main consumer, the federal government.

Washington D.C. boasts four top universities in the immediate area with entrepreneurship programs: The Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Innovation Initiative at American University, Startup Hoyas at Georgetown University, Mason Innovation Lab at George Mason University and The Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at George Washington University.

Current D.C. Startups

Washington D.C.’s economy is stable and diverse. As of February 2017, the area had an unemployment rate of 2.5% and the gross product of the area was $471 billion in 2014, making it the sixth-largest U.S. metropolitan economy.

D.C.’s ecosystem has historically been linked to government agencies, but more recently, the startup community has had greater diversity. Notable startups out of D.C. include LivingSocial, iStrategyLabs and CoFoundersLab. Advertising company iStrategyLabs has created devices and advertising campaigns for 21 Fortune 500 companies. CoFoundersLab connects entrepreneurs via an online network.

The success of LivingSocial has invigorated the D.C. ecosystem with a new generation of startups. Borrowing Magnolia, a wedding dress rental business, Galley, a freshly prepared food delivery service, and online custom framing business, Framebridge, are among the ventures founded by LivingSocial alumni.

Venture Capital in Washington, D.C.

The D.C. startup scene is home to a number of influential venture capital firms that help invigorate the ecosystem. Venture Capital investment in D.C. has reached around $350 million in investment for years 2014 and 2016, with investment lower than $200 million in 2015.

According to a report from the Martin Prosperity Institute detailing worldwide VC investment in high-tech startups, D.C. is ranked eighth in the world with a total cumulative venture capital investment of $835 million until year 2012 (the most recent year these detailed data are available).

Data indicating the number of first-round deals in D.C. illustrate a stable ecosystem with an average of 36 first-round deals per year in the last five years.

One of the largest venture capital firms in the world, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), calls both D.C. and Silicon Valley home. In 2015, NEA’s fourteenth investment fund closed with $3.1 billion in investor capital, making it the largest venture capital fund ever raised. NEA invests in technology and health care companies around the world, but continues to support companies in D.C. such as online movie player SnagFilms and software producer Cvent

A diverse portfolio of venture capital firms are settled in the ecosystem to guarantee funding sustainability. Fortify Ventures, an early stage technology investment fund, nurtures investors and entrepreneurs. Fortify has received $100,000 in funding from the D.C. mayor’s office. D.C. startup, Social Tables, recently raised $13 million in Series B funding from Fortify Ventures and other investors.

Other notable venture capital firms in the D.C. area include Groundwork VC, a fund for minority founders, New Atlantic Ventures, a firm that invests in early stage startups and NextGen Venture Partners, which transitioned from an angel network into a venture capital firm this year.

D.C. venture capital investment is strong, but compared to areas such as San Francisco, which posted over six billion dollars in venture capital investment, San Jose (approximately $4 billion) and Boston (approximately $3 billion), VC investment in D.C. still has room to grow.

Startup-Friendly Government Policy

Local government policy incentivizes companies to move to or remain in D.C. The District waives corporate income taxes for the first five years and provides new-hire wage reimbursements for startups. However, D.C.’s regulatory environment still implies high costs for obtaining business licenses and permits.

Washington’s venture capital firms, angel networks and private investors cannot compete with the extensive network and resources in established ecosystems like Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle in North Carolina. According to Dow Jones VentureSource, about 50% of all venture capital invested in the United States goes to companies in Silicon Valley.

Despite Silicon Valley’s dominance, D.C.’s location, culture and resources position it as a strong ecosystem. D.C. will continue to take advantage of the resources and opportunities presented by the federal government.

Government and Policy McNair Center

True Impact of the Bayh-Dole Act

Addressing the True Impact of the Bayh-Dole Act

Since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, many researchers have debated its contribution to the transfer of technology from universities to industry. Some credit the act as an engine of economic growth responsible for the emergence of the biotechnology industry. Critics say that the law decreased data sharing and basic research and increased health care costs. Others think that the act had little impact and that changes in university patenting were inevitable.

University patenting would have increased regardless of the Bayh-Dole Act. However, the act did help universities license patents, creating positive economic benefits especially in the biotechnology industry.


The Bayh-Dole Act was intended to improve the commercialization of federally funded research.

 Former Senator Birch Bayh and Senator Bob Dole, authors of the Bayh-Dole Act, in Washington D.C. on July 22, 1985.
Former Senator Birch Bayh and Senator Bob Dole, authors of the Bayh-Dole Act, in Washington D.C. on July 22, 1985.

Before 1980, only 5% of government-owned patents were ever utilized in industry. Corporations found it difficult, risky or unappealing to receive licenses for government patents. Several government agencies did not want to give up ownership of patents to universities or corporations. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation tended to give nonexclusive licenses to anyone, unappealing for companies. As it was easy for any company to procure licenses, the system did not incentivize companies to purchase licenses; most wanted exclusive rights.

The Bayh-Dole Act enabled institutions to keep control of patents invented using federally funded research. The university or business could then grant licenses on its own terms. The act also required universities or businesses to have clear patent policies and encourage development of inventions.

Did the Bill Work?

Claims that the Bayh-Dole Act alone led to increased patenting and economic activity surrounding university patenting are not true. Economic models show that the acceleration of patenting would still have occurred even without the act. David Mowery finds that universities increased their shares of patenting from 0.3% in 1963 to 4% by 1999. However, he notes that this increase had already begun before 1980, which indicates that the Bayh-Dole Act was not its cause.

Since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, more than 5,000 new companies have formed from federally funded university research. In 2008, more than 600 new university products were introduced to the marketplace. According to MIT, about 30 billion dollars of economic activity per year and 250,000 jobs can be attributed to technology born in academic institutions.

The Bayh-Dole Act may not have been the only contributor, but these large numbers show the importance of university innovation to the economy and make it clear that innovation spurring legislature can have enormous positive effects on economic growth.

Creation of the Biotechnology Industry

From the 1968-1970 period to the 1978-1980 period, biomedical university patents increased by 295%. Biomedicine, an important part of biotechnology, was therefore growing rapidly before the introduction of the Bayh-Dole Act. Most likely increased funding in the field, advances in science and emergence industry interest also played major roles in the growth of university patenting in this area.

The Bayh-Dole Act likely contributed to increased licensing of university biotechnology patents. The ability of universities to license patents created strong incentives for many scientist-entrepreneurs to form companies around their inventions. At least 50% of current biotech companies began as a result of a university license. Additionally, 76% of biotechnology companies have at least one license from a university.

These license based biotech companies have made huge impacts on the economy. University licensing of biotechnology patents generated more than $40 billion in economic activity in 1999. According to Boston University, biotechnology companies represented over 1.42 million jobs in 2008, and the bioscience sector as a whole represents an employment impact of 8 million jobs. By 2009, 1,699 biotech firms generated annual sales of $48.2 billion.

Addressing Criticisms

Critics of the Bayh-Dole Act cite the decrease of data sharing, higher health care costs and a shift away from fundamental research as flaws of the law.

Because researchers patent new inventions, they might tie up research data in patent rights. This could prevent other researchers from accessing this data, slowing the research process. An article by Neil Thompson and others suggest that this isn’t true in practice. They find no evidence that licensing of academic patents limits the sharing of research data. However, their work leaves open whether licenses on research tools lead to restrictions on continual research in a subject.

Many also argue that health care costs have increased as a result of the Act. Biomedical university patents often can be utilized in the process of drug creation. As these discoveries are not final products, companies must license each patent that they use to create a drug. The cost of licensing many of these patents allegedly drives up the cost of the final product, hurting the consumer. The NIH and USPTO have created guidelines to prevent the unreasonable licensing of biomedical patents. However, these guidelines are not all concrete.

While this “royalty stacking” may contribute to high prices, it is unfair to blame the costs solely on the Bayh-Dole Act. Drug development includes a multitude of phases with high costs that extend beyond patents at each step. Many drugs could also not have been developed without the help of the patented technologies.

Finally, others point out that applied research generates more money from patenting. They argue that the Bayh-Dole Act therefore incentivizes universities to focus on applied research instead of basic research. This too is not true. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of basic science research from 1980 to 2001 increased from 66.6% to 74.1%. Applied researched actually decreased from 33.4% to 25.9%.


The Bayh-Dole Act was not the sole factor in the increase of university patenting. However, it does appear to have played an important role in the licensing of university patents, particularly in the biotechnology industry.

The biotechnology is sector is large and growing. In 1980, it was almost nonexistent. By 2009, the sales of just 1,699 biotech firms were worth more than 2.5% of U.S. GDP. Academic intellectual property provides the crucial foundation for this sector. Further incentivizes for university patenting and its licensing could therefore drive yet more economic growth.

In addition, the government could encourage the use of unlicensed academic patents by offering tax breaks to companies who commercialize them. It could also encourage universities that excel at technology transfer such as Stanford or MIT to share best practices to other universities.