DC Inno’s annual State of Innovation event brings together local business leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators to examine trends in innovation. This year’s event featured prominent speakers and panelist from thriving local companies, interactive roundtables with startup executives sharing their stories and advice, networking and a live recording of the DC Inno Beat Podcast.

To kick things off Tuesday, DC Inno general manager Ryan Ferguson hosted a fireside chat with Brian Kenner, DC’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, to discuss what D.C. is doing to attract innovative companies and help them grow.

Kenner said that he frequently takes the chance to sit down with local startup executives to have conversations about how they are attracting workers, and why people and companies chose to relocate to DC. While he said he hears a wide array of answers, he pointed to the District’s neighborhoods, restaurants and friendliness to younger residents without cars, as reasons the city is able to attract a new crop of workers. Kenner also mentioned the District’s visit to Austin’s SXSW Conference as an opportunity to get more national recognition of the ecosystem that DC is trying to cultivate.


On some local initiatives, Kenner said he hopes the new Howard incubator will continue to promote an enriched and diverse startup community, while also hopefully drawing more venture capital to the District. Finally, he outlined some of the initiatives that will be a part of the administration’s InnoMAYtion initiative this year, including a kickoff in tandem with American University and 500 companies that will help partner throughout the month.

The first panel of the day was Sell and Tell: Marketing and PR. Moderated by DC Inno staff reporter Eric Schwartz, the panel focused on the evolving needs and strategies of marketing and PR in the world of tech and startups. Brad Heidemann of Tahzoo emphasized the importance of knowing who you’re targeting as potential clients while Lisa Throckmorton of SpeakerboxPR laid out the importance of knowing the media you’re pitching to. Leah Nurik of Gabriel Marketing shared her ideas on how creativity can impact public relations and marketing and Allen Gannett from TrackMaven highlighted the importance of data and importantly, using the data, when designing marketing plans.

Nurik and Gannett engaged in a lively debate over the relative value of quantitative vs. qualitative-driven market, leading to one of the more memorable quotes of the afternoon, from Nurik, “If life were an algorithm, we’d all be dead.”

Following the opening fireside and first panel, event attendees had the opportunity to engage with local startup executives at a series of roundtable discussions. On hand to share their experience and expertise were representatives from Spotluck, Eastern Foundry, Union Kitchen, UrbanStems, &pizza and WeddingWire.

The panels resumed with an animated and fast-paced debate on the nature of the venture capital industry, and more specifically, how entrepreneurs can best approach raising capital from private investors. Moderating the panel was TandemNSI executive, angel investor and professor Jonathan Aberman. He posed various difficult questions to Middleland Capital partner Alex Pessala, SBA innovation head Mark Walsh, Cooley LLP partner Mike Lincoln and Revolution’s Ashley Larson.

Pessala extolled the virtues of working at a smaller, family-run firm, including more flexibility when it comes to making investments. Walsh, who has extensive investment experience in both the private and public sectors, said that the most important thing when considering an investment is the person behind the company. Recalling a notable palindrome, “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama,” Walsh said it’s the person, then the model, then the product, that matter, in order of importance, for a promising business.

Among other interesting topics, the group explained that one of D.C.’s biggest strengths has been its ability to rely on less capital while still keeping good business practices. As a result, the widespread cut in company valuations has not harmed DC.area companies as it has in Silicon Valley. This decrease in valuations has come as less capital is available, and investors are focused more so on revenue than growth projections.

On the last panel of the day, Office Envy: Company Culture and Recruiting, participants discussed what contributes to a healthy and productive office culture and how important this is to recruiting talent. Lily Cua from Aspire said that office perks are often key in building a successful company culture, but have to be managed in the right way. For instance, happy hours for an office where many employees arrive to work early would be a worse fit than free breakfast.  Peter Gallagher from 2U talked about why a personal connection between leadership and staff is important, as well as transparency amongst employees. And Dominique Taylor of Everfi extolled on why culture goes far beyond just having a ping pong table in the office.

To close out the discussion, moderator Sam Cicotello from Social Tables distributed printed out emoji smile and frown faces for a lightning round, where the panelists were asked to react to different office perks. Flexible work options, and free food, particularly of the healthy variety, earned high emoji marks from the panel.

Before attendees dispersed to the networking happy hour, they were treated to a live recording of the DC Inno Beat Podcast, featuring guest interview Keith Sellars, President and CEO of the Washington DC Economic Partnership. While sipping on local beers, DC Inno’s Ryan Ferguson, Eric Schwartz and Chris Bing broke down some of the week’s biggest local tech stories, including the planned acquisition of Opower by tech giant Oracle. You can catch the special episode of the The Beat here.

In the interview, Sellars echoed Deputy Mayor Kenner’s remarks from earlier in the day, around DC marketing itself as an attractive place for tech companies. He pointed to Social Tables, Mapbox and Blackboard as a few examples of local success stories, and to WDCEP’s engagement at SXSW as an example of ways the District hopes to attract tech talent and companies from across the country to take a closer look at the innovation that’s happening in D.C.

The day closed out with a networking happy hour, where attendees were able to discuss some of the day’s topics and speakers, as well as meet fellow tech community peers and exchange a healthy number of business cards.

Stay tuned for many more events coming this year! Save the date for DC Fest on September 22 and 50 on Fire on December 1. Interested in learning more about DC Inno events and meetups? Contact us for more information at sales@streetwise-media.com.