By Mike Montgomery
For many years, company-sponsored health care was a boon to workers who paid reasonable rates and didn’t have to worry about not being able to see a doctor. But this system had a hidden drawback — it discouraged people from leaving their jobs to set up their own businesses. Even with insurance, a serious medical problem can easily bankrupt a family. For many, the risk of going without it was just too great.
The Affordable Care Act changed all that. It gave budding entrepreneurs a way to leave their jobs, start new businesses and create new jobs. According to figures from the Treasury Department, in 2014 one in five consumers who bought health care on the open market was a small business owner or was self-employed.
It’s no small thing that the ACA unleashed that kind of latent entrepreneurial spirit in many Americans. While it wasn’t the main objective of the ACA, it was a crucial side benefit and one that the government should be doing all it can to maintain.
Instead, there is a bill in Congress proposing to replace the ACA that would, according to the Office of Management and Budget, kick 24 million people off of health insurance by 2026. The new plan would make health insurance more expensive for many people, and without the expanded Medicaid option, budding entrepreneurs who might have left their jobs to start new businesses might instead decide to play it safe. For those gig economy workers already out on their own, this proposed legislation puts them in the precarious position of potentially not having any coverage at all.
This would be disastrous, especially for the gig economy. A recent report from The McKinsey Global Institute found that 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population engage in some kind of independent work. With the continued growth of the gig economy, that number should continue to increase. Companies like Uber and Thumbtack are giving people the freedom to leave dead-end jobs and work for themselves on their own schedules. That means they can work on business plans, write novels or even just spend more time with their families.
The wave of innovation that inspired these new companies is indelibly tied to the ACA. Many young people who work in the gig economy can’t conceive of a world where they don’t have health insurance because they’ve graduated into this economy.
If people lose their health insurance through the ACA, it’s not only going to damage the current gig economy, but also the ability of future innovators to create the next generation of great companies. Whether or not the new health care bill acknowledges it, the future of work is not secure, high-paying factory jobs with good benefits. It’s digital. And whatever that eventually looks like, it’s going to be helped along by legislation that understands the evolving realities of work and by providing the flexible, 21st century safety net people need.
Members of Congress who care about unleashing America’s job growth potential must realize that the current bill is the wrong plan for our times and it risks taking us backwards. America’s entrepreneurs are counting on Congress to get this right.
This piece was originally published in Forbes.
By Kish Rajan
The recent flooding around the Oroville dam was dramatic — images of flooded fields, evacuated homes and water bursting out of spillways made the news as far away as England. This despite nearly a decade’s worth of warnings.
And it’s not the only place in California that’s been impacted by the recent deluge. One more big storm could cause flooding around the King’s River overflow system. Road closures and flash flood warnings have been rampant throughout the Coachella Valley and beyond in Southern California. Hundreds were forced to evacuate after a levee breach in Manteca.
It’s unsettling to see something like this happening in 2017. How is it that we have cars that can park themselves, cellphones that act like credit cards and watches that monitor our heartbeats, but we’re still struggling to manage our water — something that’s been an issue for as long as people have inhabited the earth?
We need to rethink California’s water infrastructure. Interests in our state have been engaging in the same fight over water ad nauseum. The battle lines are traditionally between the north and the south and between industry and agriculture. While those fights go on, vital infrastructure is allowed to crumble. Those fights have distracted us from looking to a new source to solve California’s water problems: the tech industry.
Our state is the hub of technological genius — we just need to encourage entrepreneurs to fix their sights on our water problems.
Look at what technology has done in the energy sector. Over the last 20 years we’ve led the nation in growing the market for solar energy and making appliances and electronics more efficient so they use less power. According to Greenbiz, California is on track to generate 33% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and the clean-tech industry has generated 430,000 jobs in the state.
It’s time to put that same kind of muscle behind water. Politicians and tech leaders need to come to the table and begin to figure out smart fixes for our aging water infrastructure. To start, California should make its water records public so that anyone can use that data to better understand how and where we use water and come up with ways to save it.
Then we need to make our waterways smarter. Using sensors placed throughout the water system, engineers could develop apps that track where the water is, where it’s needed and how best to get it from point A to point B.
Smart-home monitors could help encourage people to use less water by alerting them to their water use. Showers heads could be equipped with sensors that can tell if you’ve stepped out of the stream to shave and then lower the water flow. New technologies could reuse gray water and even harvest water from dew, fog and the ocean.
State officials have been working overtime to fix erosion problems around the Oroville Dam to keep it stable for the latest round of storms, and we should acknowledge their efforts. But the state now needs to think proactively about its water system. What can we do to prevent the next crisis? And while we have a little extra water for now, how can we better manage it to last us through future droughts? These are the kinds of problems that tech entrepreneurs love to solve, and in California, we have the talent to make good ideas reality. It’s time to invite the tech community to the table.
By Kish Rajan
California’s communications industry has witnessed a period of astonishing growth over the last 10 years, with the promise of an even brighter future to come. You might even call it a broadband boom. So it’s crucial that state policy makers keep that growth a top priority as they begin their new legislative session. They should resist any calls to stifle competition or innovation. California desperately needs this focus for the state to continue to be the world’s technology leader.
California legislators are already signaling that they understand the importance of the networks that power modern communication devices and technologies. For example, lawmakers recently reshaped California’s Utilities and Commerce Committee, which oversees utilities in the state. Instead of lumping the Internet into the same committee that oversees utilities like the electric company, it moved it into the newly created Communications and Conveyance Committee. This change sent a clear message to Californians: policy makers understand the internet isn’t a staid, static utility, and it shouldn’t be regulated like one.
When California’s legislators work with the communications community, the state’s consumers win big. A recent study by CALinnovates bears this out. Economist David Sosa found that from 2008 to 2015, wireline broadband speeds have increased 700 percent, while broadband prices have declined as much as 76 percent. During the same time period, broadband VoIP connections increased by 220 percent, or 4.9 million users, while California’s total wireless subscriptions jumped by 9.5 million, or 29 percent. At the same time California has experienced tremendous growth in IP and Wireless technologies, legacy voice connections declined by 4.3 million, or 36 percent. These are just a few of the signs that Californians’ demand for broadband, mobile and voice over IP is growing rapidly.
Even better, broadband speeds are getting faster while costing consumers less. Sosa found that broadband speeds have increased by nearly 700 percent since 2008. Even so, from 2008 through 2015 residential, wireline broadband prices fell by as much as 70 percent. Clearly California is on the right track when it comes to bringing broadband and mobile technology to its citizens at a reasonable price.
Is there still work to be done? Of course. As I’ve noted before, California needs to continue working to ensure technology benefits all Californians. Over the last decade, private investment has advanced broadband and wireless coverage across the state, including in many rural communities. Government programs, such as the Connect America Fund, can also help make considerable progress in increasing broadband access. The California Advanced Services Fund can play an important role as well, in helping to fund broadband deployment to unserved and underserved areas of the state. Looking forward, developing smart policies to promote the deployment of advanced wireless technologies such as 5G and small cell, will also help accelerate the delivery of next-generation technologies that consumers demand.
These solutions will come, but only if California lawmakers stay the course. The state’s forward-thinking policies have created broadband and mobile markets that are functioning extremely well, and will continue to deliver innovative new products and services going forward, as well as faster connectivity. Let’s keep California moving forward and encourage our state’s legislators to keep this broadband boom going.
By Mike Montgomery
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) made a serious blunder that should concern the entire entrepreneurial community when he said on CNN Tuesday that “rather than getting that new iPhone that [people] just love … maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
He was on TV to defend the Republicans’ newly rolled out alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Instead he put his foot in his mouth and in doing so posited a gross misconception that owning a smartphone in today’s digital economy is, somehow, a luxury.
Although Chaffetz later walked back the statement, it’s still worth discussing. Let’s put aside the fact that the average annual cost of health care last year was $10,345 per person and that most people can get new smartphones for less than $50 per month by signing a contract with a carrier. There’s clearly no cost comparison here.
But on a deeper level, Chaffetz’s comment shows a severe lack of understanding of modern technology, entrepreneurship and the trajectory of the economy. A smartphone is not only a necessity for people who work on-call shifts or who work remotely or in the gig economy. Smartphones are potentially the greatest invention of our modern age not just because they enable us to text, make calls and surf Facebook, but also because of the way they can help us stay healthy. Rather than face a binary choice between health insurance and an iPhone, as Chaffetz proposed, perhaps insurance plans should provide beneficiaries with a smartphone that could easily be considered a required piece of health care hardware for the 21st century.
Every day new apps are emerging that are related to health. There are apps that can track your exercise and food intake. There are apps that remind people to take their medications, drink more water and even meditate to manage stress. These small innovations can go a long way toward helping people stay healthier and out of the doctor’s office.
But for people who do become sick, smartphones can be a lifeline. People who live in rural areas can communicate with specialists hundreds of miles away. Smartphones have the potential to eliminate the expensive paperwork that can add costs and time to people getting the care they need. Smartphones offer a future where consumers could one day shop for the best prices on procedures like knee replacements and MRIs. The possibilities are endless.
Chaffetz’s comment shows that there is still a dangerous divide between reality and Washington, D.C. If politicians really care about making health care cheaper and more widely available, they should work with entrepreneurs to come up with modern solutions to this age-old problem. Equating smartphones with wasteful spending is not the way forward.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
By Tim Sparapani
There are a few things that are constant in this world: death, taxes, and the fact that every new administration rethinks regulations.
That can be a big problem, especially when it comes to consumer privacy rights. The rules that govern how companies collect, use and share consumers’ data shouldn’t ebb and flow like the tides. They should be cemented in place to give companies and consumers desperately needed assurance that the landscape won’t keep changing.
For years, privacy advocates like me have pushed for protections on consumer data collected on and offline. We urged that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) be given additional resources to focus specifically on the misuse of consumer data collected offline and merged with online data.
Unfortunately, the FTC’s wings were clipped when another federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission, expanded its previously narrow privacy authority. While that might sound like something privacy advocates would applaud, it’s a move that’s only muddied the waters and, arguably, reduced protections for consumers’ online privacy.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) self-approved expansion of authority actually displaced the FTC entirely. FTC staff had consistently policed online privacy with an impressive level of authority and competency.
That not only left consumers’ privacy in limbo, it pushed innovators and startups into a chaotic, unpredictable regulatory landscape for all online products and services that make use of consumer data.
The confusion that resulted from this was compounded by the election. Before the FCC could even hire privacy experts or prepare policy pronouncements, a new commission was ready to walk through the door. That’s why it is long past time for Congress to impose some order on the privacy landscape. One easy thing Congress can do is return the FTC to its place as the top privacy cop on the internet beat.
This piece was originally published in The Hill
By Tim Sparapani
The Trump travel ban sent a signal to the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims — and the rest of the world — that the United States is no longer open for business. It was a dagger pointed not at the heart of ISIS, but at the heart of the U.S. innovation economy. The president missed an opportunity Tuesday night to walk away from a policy that is terrible for our Constitution, our economy and our values.
As a former ACLU attorney, one who practiced constitutional law and led the ACLU’s efforts on privacy and immigration, I can say unequivocally that the executive order was unconstitutional and would have failed a U.S. Supreme Court challenge. As a former director of policy at Facebook, and currently an adviser to dozens of tech startups, I can tell you that from a business point of view, it is a direct threat to our global innovation leadership.
The U.S. is in constant competition for software coding and engineering talent. Wherever that talent goes, capital and the innovation economy follow. For generations, people with brilliant new ideas, talent and the desire to work hard and take risks have flocked to the U.S., producing an incredibly dynamic and powerful economy. Tech workers earn more than twice the average private sector wage. There are roughly 7 million of them employed in the United States. If we shut our doors, these talented thinkers and workers will go elsewhere, taking their dynamism and productivity with them. U.S. innovation leadership is not an immutable fact. While novel ideas and access to capital certainly matter, the most precious resource for innovative companies is talent.
Simply put: The companies with the most talented staff usually win. The greatest cost to most companies is engineering talent. Right now, more than 80 percent of companies looking for engineers are having trouble hiring. There are never enough people with the highest skills and creativity to fill these roles. In fact, the time needed to fill job openings is the longest it’s been in nearly two decades. In the next 15 years, net migration will be the only significant source of labor force growth, according to The Conference Board,an influential global economic research group. U.S. colleges and universities produce insufficient numbers of highly-skilled workers in software, hardware coding and engineering. Code academies and other training courses help, but they cannot fill the gap.
There’s nothing especially magical about Silicon Valley or the United States that forces the most innovative and successful companies in the world to be established and built here. Look around — whether it is Tel Aviv, Berlin, Nairobi or Beijing, dozens of other cities and countries are vying to be the next Silicon Valley. Their emergence has been slow only because the United States, until recently, has been perceived as the finest place to build ideas into companies. But a report by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2020, Bangalore, India, will overtake Silicon Valley as the largest IT cluster in the world.
From a civil liberties perspective, the travel ban and any future policies or executive orders like it are anathema to our values and our Constitution. Depriving lawful permanent residents and visa holders of travel rights violates both the constitutionally-protected “right to travel” enunciated in many legal cases, as well as the substantive and procedural due process clauses of the Constitution.
Trump has promised to revise the ban. For the good of our innovation economy and the good of our democracy, we should ban any future bans.
This piece was originally published in Morning Consult.
By Mike Montgomery
During a recent blizzard in Massachusetts, Sonia Lo, CEO of FreshBox Farms, was in a grocery store suggesting to skeptical patrons that they sample her leafy greens. “They were picked yesterday,” is what she told tasters. She also told them no, they weren’t picked elsewhere and flown in that morning. Lo’s greens — over 30 different types — grow year-round in an airtight modular box in Millis, Massachusetts. Every plant’s tray is attached to a sensor to determine just the right amount of water, nutrients and LED lighting the plant needs.
“We have an algorithm for every plant variety,” says Lo. They measure around 10,000 data points per plant for factors such as environment, nutrients, plant stress and LED light. “We have our own software intended to identify if the plants are unhappy. We don’t use chemical controls — we rely on these digital points to pre-empt plant stress and allow for extraordinary things like faster grow times.”
As corporate investors start putting their money into agriculture technology (ag tech) startups, shoppers might just start seeing a lot more fresh crops at their local stores, even in the dead of winter.
Ag tech — from hobbyist to huge commercial farms — is taking off. CB Insights defines ag tech as “technology that increases the efficiency of farms (in the form of software), sensors, aerial-based data, internet-based distribution channels (marketplaces) and tools for technology-enabled farming.”
A recent report from Boston Consulting Group says that “new technologies are revolutionizing agriculture.” In fact, according to this report, venture capital firms have upped their ag tech investments by 80% since 2012 — even though commodity prices remain volatile.
Cleveland Justis, the executive director of the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of California, Davis says his campus is seeing a lot of traffic from venture capitalists as well as big industry companies who are looking for fresh agricultural technologies. Researchers at UC Davis are working on food growth technologies such as gut microbiome innovations, precision farming and drought-friendly cultivation.
“Companies are seeing this as a hub of science around how we feed people and make more resilient crops with less,” Justis says. “How are we going to feed 9 billion people in the future? Not with a simple software program. We’re going to have to use really deep, cutting-edge research to inform these processes.”
The software market for precision farming (such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting) is expected to grow 14% between 2016 and 2022 in the United States. Dale Jefferson, president and COO of CropZilla Software Inc., says that in less than two years, his precision farming startup’s software has been installed in farms across the U.S. and Canada, and it is even being tested in Italy. His software takes into account every aspect of a farm, from the types of seeds planted to the number of workers and combines in use.
“We create a digital model,” he says. Farmers can use the software to play with variables and see how potential changes — such as an expensive combine purchase or hiring 10 new field hands — can affect their forecast. For instance, a Midwestern farmer recently used CropZilla to see what would happen if he took his soybean planting schedule from one 12-hour shift to two 10-hour shifts. “The numbers worked out to a five bushel-per-acre increase,” Jefferson says. The farmer made an additional $170,000 from his soybean yield after making this change.
“With corn and bean prices down, farmers are turning to technology to help them survive,” Jefferson says.
This piece was originally published in Forbes.
By Mike Montgomery
It was crunch time. With less than two hours to go before the U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed the controversial Betsy DeVos as the next secretary of education, a group of prominent Democratic senators huddled on Capitol Hill for a press conference about … something else.
What could have been more important? The so-called travel ban? President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda or the onslaught against federal environmental regulations?
No, they gathered to talk about the future of net neutrality and the concern that at some point in the future, the FCC might decide to alter its approach to governing the internet.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully support a free and open internet, but more fundamental issues must take precedence in these trying times, especially when a torrent of constituent feedback can permanently turn the tide on matters of national importance — where focusing on net neutrality today may mean a constituent decides not to weigh in on opposing Steve Bannon’s spot on the National Security Council.
As a parent and a progressive Democrat, I am disappointed to see vital energy and focus diverted from the DeVos vote. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed the unqualified DeVos to run the department that serves 50 million students across more than 100,000 schools. Why was discussing something like net neutrality, on that day specifically, more important than discussing a contrasting progressive vision for the future of our public school system or supporting actual education voices?
That’s not to say that net neutrality isn’t important. It is and will remain so. But progressives who are also net neutrality proponents should be disappointed that any attention was deflected on an historic and consequential day to discuss what the FCC might do in the future regarding net neutrality.
DeVos was confirmed by the narrowest of margins – and perhaps if senators were focused on that issue and not net neutrality, perhaps there could have been at least one more last-gasp attempt to convince one additional Republican to vote against DeVos. Instead, they were preparing for a press conference that did not need to be held that day.
Unfortunately, what’s done is done. There is no reset button for anyone to push. DeVos is the secretary of education, and net neutrality is in place as firmly today as it was earlier this week.
Net neutrality deserves attention and protection — but it needs a thoughtful legislative conversation to codify an open internet, not press conferences and partisanship. For those who want to preserve the basic principles of net neutrality but are fearful that the FCC will abolish the Open Internet order, it’s time to take this fight to Congress. As we’ve said all along — only by cementing net neutrality into law can the government hope to create a stable environment for consumers and existing and future tech companies alike. We need bipartisan legislation that will remain immune to the whims of any particular administration and survive partisan politics.
Many people I know feel displaced and voiceless in today’s political environment. The last few weeks have shown that activists are finding new ways to express their points of view – but the firehose of issues is unrelenting and daunting. Health care, immigration, education, the Supreme Court, the environment – the list goes on. We all need to remind ourselves that there’s a proper time and place for important debates like net neutrality. Tuesday was not that day.
Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a nonpartisan coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits determined to make the new economy a reality.