INTERVIEW: Streamlining Innovation With Marketplace.city's Chris Foreman

September 26, 2018

The call for procurement innovation has been answered. Taking on the task is Marketplace.city, a digital platform aiming to simplify the process of finding, validating and implementing new technology at the city level. Initially launched as Marketplace.nyc in collaboration with the White House's Smart Cities Challenge in 2016, the now-global service is rethinking the procurement process by building a virtual marketplace for smart solutions. By centralizing and streamlining this information, startups and emerging tech firms gain the audience of city agencies, who are in turn reap the efficiencies of the marketplace. This year, the platform took another leap forward by partnering with 100 Resilient Cities, a Rockefeller Pioneered Organization, trying in resilience planning into the smart solutions market. Smart & Resilient Cities had a chance to speak with Marketplace.city's co-founder and CEO Chris Foreman for a discussion on how the company is helping cities embrace smart city tech.

Smart & Resilient Cities: So you worked in the Smart Cities sector before you started Marketplace.city?

Chris Foreman: Yes, I was on the partner executive board for Microsoft CityNext. Our company, AvePoint, had developed some apps for citizen engagement and 311, things like that. We build this appf for the city of Newton, Massachusetts, which was like their virtual town hall solution. The city was sick and tired of hosting town hall meetings in City Hall at 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday; they kept getting the same five people who would show up and dominate the conversation. They wanted to reach a greater audience, so we built this application where you can stream the video, take polls online, get feedback and let people ask questions. There was no two-way communication for audio or video, but at least we could take questions and get surveys and stuff like that, so that was exposed because we were running these virtual town halls in all different parts of the city, so that was a foray into Smart Cities.

S&RC: And how did you progress into your current role?

CF: I was there at AvePoint for 10 years and elected as the CEO for American business. About 50 percent of our business is public sector, so there're a lot market in the government. Every time we were doing work in the government, we came across people who want to do cool and innovative things, but they were always running into challenges around procurement and how to select the right vendor. We were on the vendor side. There are guys like us and some other good technology companies with stuff that was really applicable for cities, but we had a really hard time of navigating the procurement process. Very costly. High barrier to entry. It's interesting that cities create a procurement processes with the intention of being transparent, but it ends up favoring the incumbents because the city does business with people they're familiar with. We're looking for a way to create familiarity with companies through other means by using ratings, reviews, recommendations from other cities in an online platform.

S&RC: You're not trying to circumvent procurement, you're trying to make the process better?

CF: It's a process of finding and validating solutions and getting references and trying to try to aggregate all in one platform. It's trying to not circumvent but really to expedite the process. Governments are making moves to try to purchase technology on a more transactional basis - car technologies, SAS software, commodity products. We will eventually move into doing the transactions themselves, automating transactions based on the companies that we have on the platform.

chris foreman

S&RC: What has been the initial reaction from both cities and vendors?

CF: It's been really interesting because we thought, "We're going to put this information out there for people." They could go in and browse and they can see companies that are part of the network. If they have evidence of work they've done, we call this validations. You can go into that profile, see their product and the validations will tell you who these people have done business with in the past. It really short circuits evaluation research for cities. We were surprised that one of the cities came back to us and said, "Hey, it's good. We want to use your tool, but we also need help promoting the RFPs, challenges, tenders that we have open as well." Cities will put a challenge out there that could be $50,000, could be a quarter million to a million dollar challenge. If you're in New York City, they're going to respond to them, but if you're Providence, Rhode Island you have a hard time of getting good vendors to come to respond. The city has a hard time marketing that stuff.

One good example of this is Vancouver. Vancouver is submitting to a challenge that the government in Canada has put out there for $50 million. It's a grant they're going to give to deploy Smart City technologies. Vancouver is doing this "Smarter Together" initiative between the City of Vancouver and the City of Surrey. In order to be part of Vancouver's bid, you have to have a Marketplace.city profile, so they can go see the other cities that you worked with. We're integrating ourselves with the buying process.

S&RC: How do you cultivate these kind of relationships?

CF: It's great because our whole product started in New York City. New York sponsored the creation of our site through a public-private partnership. It was originally called Marketplace.nyc, but New York, they didn't plan on having this just for themselves; they wanted to be a multi-city, global platform. After the initial prototype, we rolled that solution into our company and then New York introduced us to a bunch of other cities. We originally launched the product in November 2017 with Dublin, New York and Barcelona. Those were our initial launch cities and then we started bringing in other cities who are part of their network. Now we have about 70 cities on the platform and over 400 companies. That is going to increase. Cities do Google searches for transportation, mobility, citizen engagements, stuff like that. They have no idea what people have done before unless they reach out to them and engage them, and they're city-employed so they don't have the resources to do all this. We're cutting down that process for them.

S&RC: How are you monetizing this exchange?

CF: Vendors pay to put their products in here. There's no cost to put a company in here, but then you pay to have your product on here. It's $12 per product, per month, so it's not thousands of dollars. Startups love this. Bigbelly, for example, they do smart waste management, they have eleven case studies, so these guys are pretty well deployed. They deploy in Chicago, New York City and Atlanta. They love us because it puts independent verification on the work that they've done, so they're big fans of us as well.

S&RC: Did you ever have any roadblocks or challenges that you didn't foresee when beginning this platform?

Chris: The biggest challenge for us is, because of the global platform, it's sort of a burden. We have a lot of cities reaching out to us, so we want to get these cities enabled on the platform. However, this makes it harder for us to go deeper within those cities. We're trying to raise money right now to hire staff to go deeper within those cities, because now we're understanding how much help those cities need to promote these issues that they have. Those cities are always coming to us and saying, "Hey, do you have people that do this, that and the other?" We're like, "Yeah, it's on the platform." They respond: "Good I want to talk to them, can you create an event? Help push my content so that they see what I'm trying to do as a city?" The cities need more help from us than we anticipated, so we're looking to build up staff to be able to do that.

S&RC: When you're interfacing with cities, are you usually talking with CIOs, CTOs, or mayors?

CF: Yes, we're talking a lot with CIOs, CTOs, mayors, deputy mayors and city managers. What we're finding is that even though the budget might be held within the water department or transportation or corrections, the necessary solutions, whether they are considered technology solutions or not, need to be more technology enabled. They involve some components of technology, so CIOs, CTOs are getting pulled into these discussions where they may not have typically been pulled in. They need to get smart on these solutions pretty quickly and we will present alternative solutions to these people. Streetlights are a big one for smart cities, you know they say streetlights are the gateway drug for smart cities. A lot of that is the people managing streetlights are facilities departments, not IT. So, you have facilities looking to swap out light-bulbs, but then, because the light-bulb company has connected bulbs, they're going to then go to the facilities department saying, "Hey, you should use this bulb that can tell you when it needs to be replaced, so it lowers your cost of ownership, but in order for it to be connected you have to have a Wi-Fi device on the street post." Who manages Wi-Fi? The IT department, right? So IT's getting pulled into all these things. So that's why they are our point person in a lot of these things. Then we move out into the various departments as well.

S&RC: How do you interface purchasing or procurement?

CF: Procurement gets brought in more and more. Often times they're just being brought in to see one solution like, "Hey, we want to buy this." Okay well, what else is out there? Who else has used them? They want to reach out and see what the contracts look like with those other cities, because they don't want to have to reinvent the wheel with these companies and be like, "What's your licensing model? What's your standard government discount? Who are your references? What's the viability of your company?" Someone else has already done this.

We call it the six degrees of acquisition; someone else somewhere has bought this technology and we're helping connect you to the guys that have already done it. We can be an integral process of that procurement cycle, to where the procurement officers will reach out and say, "Hey, show me the other contracts. Show me the other cities who have bought this stuff. I'm interested and need to cut down this process." It's an important piece.

S&RC: Given the way that technology has developed a lot faster than other legacy infrastructure products, have you found any difficulty in dealing with that from a procurement standpoint?

CF: It sort of defines the reason why we're here in general, right? The procurement process is longer than development cycles. When procurement starts and the line of business decides they want to buy a certain technology version 5.0, by the time the procurement process is done it's already version six, version seven. If you want to swap out those numbers, you have to restart the process. The reason why we're here is to expedite in their procurement cycle so that government feels more comfortable. We lower that risk of purchasing technology to bring better technology into the government space and attract more technology solutions into government. You have a whole host of companies that sell IoT devices, sell software systems that are viable for the government, but they won't touch it because the procurement cycle is too slow. The government is hamstrung because they're only able to look at the piece of the market that's willing to sell to them - and not the most innovative technologies out there. We are opening doors for government to have access to better technology, by reducing the risk and the time barrier of acquisition.

S&RC: What are the next stages going forward for Marketplace.city? STOP

CF: I think a lot of it has to do with becoming a more integral part of the government buying process. Government has significant hurdles in finding out what are the people are doing. They also have hurdles in promoting what it is they do. The whole reviews space is unknown for government.  We are working to bring consumer functionality into the government space. It's just nobody is really doing anything out there. It's just something that we want them to know.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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