DURHAM – It’s the second year running for Innovate Durham, the 12-week, startup-in-residence program that pairs innovators with the local government.

But this time around, its class of cohorts is definitely looking like a more diverse bunch.

On Monday, city officials announced that seven startups would get their chance to turn the City of Durham and Durham County into a test lab for their idea products and services.

Among them: Applyable, Digital LinCS, Deep Visual Insights, Hoverlay, Rownd, State of Place and TRASHR.

Break down the group’s demographics, however, and something else comes into focus.

Out of 39 applicants, city and county staff collaboratively chose to partner up with startups that were, in large part, led or owned by minorities and women – around 57 percent and 42 percent, respectively, according to data released by the city.

Compare that to last year when the inaugural cohort consisted of just four startups – all led by white men.

“We got a lot of feedback that the cohort that we had was not reflective of Durham, and we wanted to improve upon that,” said Ben Kittleson, senior analyst with the City’s Senior Budget and Management Services Department, at Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Bullpen. “It was a huge focus of our outreach this year.”

“One thing we didn’t have to sacrifice is quality,” added Eric Marsh, analyst with the County’s Strategic Initiatives Office. “These are awesome companies that have a great product. They hit real key issues within the community, and you only get that when you start focusing on having a more representative cohort.”

WRAL TechWire photo

Announcing Innovate Durham’s 2018 cohort: Ben Kittleson and Eric Marsh

Testing solution

As part of Innovate Durham each company will get a pilot run over the next three months, meeting regularly with staff from selected city and county departments to help test their products. On December 6, the partners will present their accomplishments and discuss the trial at a “Demo Day”, which will be open to the public.

“Innovate Durham allows us to create capacity for our staff to solve problems in a new way,” Kittelson said. “This is all about bringing new ideas into our organizations and, as a bonus, it also helps us support our local businesses and startup community.”

ll about bringing new ideas into our organizations and, as a bonus, it also helps us support our local businesses and startup community.”

The Durham effort is the first city and county effort in North Carolina to start a public-private innovation partnership program. It is modeled after existing programs in Kansas City, Missouri and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Breaking down barriers

Among those selected is Raymahl Sutton, the 31-year-old founder of Applyable, which offers a job application system where companies and recruiters can review companies anonymously, mitigating biases when hiring.

He came up with the idea out of college when he had difficulty finding his first job. It wasn’t until he changed the name on his resume from “Raymahl” to “Ray” that he finally got interviewed and hired.

“Some believe a company with a social mission can’t be successful as a revenue generating company, but I disagree,” he said. “By testing our software with al organization, we can learn so much more and build an even better product. If all goes well, this could be the trampoline we need to spring recruiting change all over the world.”

Allison Matthews, 31, Marcus Hawley, 35, and Alexandria Anderson, 31 – founders of Community Expert Solutions – are also hoping to bring about much-needed social change.

As medical researchers, the friends had spent the last 10 years working together on different HIV-related research projects. Finally, in 2017, they decided to team up to improve access to healthcare in Durham.

Through their online platform, Digital LinCS, they aim is to match and connect eligible people to patient assistance programs that offer free medication and services.

“We believed there needed to be a better way to help people get connected to services, and felt like we could make an impact in Durham,” said Anderson.

The group is currently focused on HIV/AIDS, but say they will soon expand to diabetes, mental health issues and other diseases.

“Our long-term goal is for Digital LinCS to be able to retain that community and connect them to the services they need. It changes the landscape because it puts the power of health in patient hands by developing an access pipeline that is currently lacking for patients.”