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Ashton Kutcher helps kickstart COIN’s new focus on pairing startups with government

03 November 2016   •   4 minute read

Colorado’s mission to become an entrepreneurial and innovation hub for private companies is well on its way. And that has left the Colorado Innovation Network needing to refocus.

COIN, Gov.  John Hickenlooper’s pet project launched in 2011, did just that on Thursday, nixing its annual summit and introducing Reverb — with a little help from investor and actor Ashton Kutcher, known for his role in “That ’70s Show” and now starring in “The Ranch,” a Netflix comedy set in Colorado.

“We can be the leaders for the entire nation right here today,” said an impassioned Kutcher, who took the stage at Reverb following the governor. “This can start today. We can start a movement and push this through the nation.”

Let’s back up a bit.

COIN, a privately funded organization that sits inside public government, wanted to bring businesses, government and the private sector together to figure out how to attract talent, entrepreneurs and capital to the state. Denver has since racked up a number of honors, most recently Forbes’ top city for business and careers.

As COIN’s executive director Anna Ewing and her team began refocusing in the past year, Kutcher and his Sound Ventures investment firm were looking for public officials willing to take a chance on promising technology to make government processes more efficient. The other common denominator: Liberty Media executive Chad Hollingsworth, a member of the Sound Ventures investment team.

Hollinsworth was working with COIN and convinced Kutcher there was real interest in Colorado in making institutional changes. “So we said ‘All right, let’s put this conference together just to get the discussion going and maybe we can figure out where this friction is and start to eliminate it,’” Kutcher said. “Maybe the companies can pivot a little bit, maybe the government can pivot a little bit and we can find some common ground.”

The mix of attendees Thursday was different than at past COIN Summits. People who work for the state’s fire prevention division, department of public safety and office of information technology mixed in with startup founders and venture capitalists. And instead of just the usual speakers on stage, the conference made time for one-on-ones between companies, government officials and Kutcher himself.

“The ecosystem in Colorado has evolved so dramatically that we really wanted to focus on something where we could be progressive, add value and do something new that the private sector wasn’t doing,” Ewing said. “We know the technology is being developed by private innovators but there are some significant hurdles for getting those systems embedded into government systems, whether it’s the procurement process or risk tolerance.”

Some government officials talked about the limits of working in the public sector. Colorado Department of Transportation chief Shailen Bhatt mentioned last month’s successful trip of an autonomously-driven truck carrying a load of Budweiser beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

“My buddies in Silicon Valley, they always talk about failing: We want to fail. We want to reward failure,” Bhatt said. “But if the (autonomous) truck shipment had not gone well last week, it’d be, ‘Who are you going to replace the former executive director of CDOT with?’ Because that’s not what happens in our world when you make a big investment and something goes wrong.”

Kutcher, who has been investing in tech startups, including Uber, for the past decade, said don’t think about the impossible but the possible.

“The first inclination is why it’s not possible, as opposed to why it is possible and how do we overcome the hurdles,” he said. His goal is to get public agencies connected to tech startups in collaborations that make sense. If that works, he hopes to roll out the Reverb model to other states.

He said his team has done the work of vetting companies to make sure the technology works and meets regulations. For example, he said, one of his companies Mark43 has law enforcement software to reduce a police officer’s office work load. It’s currently being used in Washington, D.C., California and other parts of the country.

“It reduces the amount of time it takes an officer to do a police report by a factor of 10. So you can take a police report down from an hour to 10 minutes,” Kutcher said. “That’s an additional 50 minutes a day that the officer can be on the beat and on the streets actually doing the job they like doing.”

Kutcher said that his interest in technology started after his twin brother, Mike, received a heart transplant at age 13.

“A virus attacked his heart. I became increasingly interested in biochemistry and genetic engineering and how to stop that virus from replicating,” said Kutcher, who went on to study biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa before dropping out to model and, eventually, act.

His brother now lives in Denver.

Kutcher began investing around 2006 because he noticed “online buffering speeds get faster and faster and though we could quantify creativity and quantify the distribution content,” he said.

He went on to co-found venture capital firm A-Grade Investments about six years ago and Sound Ventures in 2015. Investments include OpenGov, a cloud-based system to help public agencies budget better; Neighborly, which eliminates the middleman in municipal bonds; and education platforms Albert.IO and Panorama Education.

“I’m just a nerd,” Kutcher said. “Honestly, they always say that the thing you should be doing is the thing you do on the weekends. I work on the weekends.”