David Graham: Pioneering Civic Innovation in San Diego, CA

“When I was a kid, my dad had a secret stash of magazines I wasn’t supposed to know about, hidden in the garage, buried in a box. But I knew where they were, so I’d sneak into the garage and leaf through the pages of those sexy Popular Science magazines because I wanted to know what the future would look like.”

Flash forward and David Graham, formerly the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Smart and Sustainable Communities in San Diego and currently the Chief Innovation Officer for the neighboring city of Carlsbad, would find himself in the position of creating the cities of the future. Here is a look at his work pioneering civic innovation in San Diego. 

The Four Horsemen of the Metro Apocalypse

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The concept of ‘smart cities’ means bringing technological advances to a city that will improve its operations and the quality of life for its citizens. “But I’m going to admit something to you right now,” he says. “Most of our cities are incredibly dumb.” Why? Because there are some major challenges holding them back.

“We have these great technological advances to create things like cleaner mobility,” says David, “but the fundamental building blocks of our cities are still flawed.” When thinking about the challenges that cities face, he likes to think of them as ‘the four horsemen of the metro apocalypse.’

1. Rapid Urbanization

We know that by 2030, a third of the world will live in cities of 500,000 or more. Rapid urbanization means cramming more people into less space.

2. Aging Infrastructure

Around the US, $4 trillion dollars of investment is necessary just to catch up with the underfunded infrastructure investments.

3. Climate Change

Climate change is something that is affecting the entire world. While there are still deniers, even corporate America has come on board. When banks and rating agencies for bonds look and ask about your city, they ask whether the city has sustainability officers, because climate change is a real and specific threat.

4. Cyber Security

The city of San Diego got a million attacks a month on their network, many from known malicious addresses and over a hundred thousand that are verified to be specific attacks on the city. “This is probably our number one threat that we’re facing in cities today, and the one that we are least ready to deal with,” David adds. 

Civic Innovation Is the Solution

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The solution to these problems is found in civic innovation, says David. Broadly defined, it’s the process of co-creating with outside parties in order to strategically use technology and data to solve city problems. To look at it more specifically, we can examine several components and key ideas within the philosophy and process of civic innovation.

Gathering Data

Gathering data is the key to figuring out what’s going on in your city. To do this, San Diego made use of the most mundane of urban objects—the streetlight. 

The streetlight is a fundamental piece of infrastructure that people walk by every day but rarely notice. It helps illuminate the night, thus providing safety and security for citizens. But the fact that streetlights are everywhere and are the perfect height to ‘look down’ on the streets and sidewalks below means that they can contribute so much more to the city than just light.

In San Diego, they decided to replace 14,000 streetlights with not only improved lighting but also a cellular network and sensors, thereby creating the largest municipal internet of things platform ever. Cameras, microphones, environmental sensors, all in one neat package. “The humble street light is now one of the most powerful sensing devices for civic learning that has ever existed,” says David. Some of the many uses are traffic congestion management, improving pedestrian safety, and parking optimization. 

Gathering data is important for civic innovation because it allows city officials to make data-empowered decisions. Data tells the city where it should invest money and can validate whether past money was invested properly.

Changing Bureaucracy from the Inside

Bureaucracy is not known for risk-taking. In fact, it is more known for regulations, restrictions, and lockdowns that prevent innovation. David mentions that to really change our cities, we have to shake that up, and that means “we have to change things from the inside.”

Getting help from outside innovation partners allows the city government to get ideas that they may not have (and possibly would never have) thought up on their own, for these outside partners are the true disrupters, not those within the bureaucracy itself. But truly embracing and implementing the ideas of disrupters means that the bureaucratic mindset has to change—departments and city officials have to be okay with taking risks and even accept the possibility that certain pilots will fail.

“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David. This requires a mindset shift and also a different way of viewing and operating the city.

Co-Creating With Outside Partners

As mentioned above, civic innovation requires the city to partner with individuals and entities that are true disrupters. “They’re the ones that are willing to push the hardest and the furthest, the ones that are willing to try new things and put themselves out there,” says David. While civic innovation happens within the bureaucracy, it must happen in collaboration with startups, academics, and others who have different visions of what a future city may look like. 

For example, David reflects on the changes that have come in the “last mile” transit within San Diego. Light rail and buses take people downtown, but how do these people get to their end destination? Bike share programs were once popular—first docked bikes, then dockless bikes. Now many of these bikes are gone because e-bikes and scooters showed up and have become popular with citizens. The government did not think of these last-mile mobility solutions—the private sector did. However, by embracing these solutions from startups and creative companies, a crucial urban mobility challenge is solved, and the city also reaps benefits such as less pollution and congestion.


“If we never take a chance, if we never take a risk, then we’re never going to get where we need to go in our communities,” says David.


Another example of partnering with outside parties has to do with solar panels. David recalls that the system for getting a solar panel permit used to be clunky and time-consuming. To improve this, San Diego decided to take a big risk and eliminate the front-end process, essentially relying on the private sector and engineers themselves to self-certify. By taking the government out of the process and “letting industry do what industry does best” solar panel permits skyrocketed, and the city has been able to benefit from less fossil fuel usage and less pollution. 

Co-creation with innovative partners—coupled with the bureaucracy’s shift to becoming more accepting of risk—helps civic innovation flourish.

Engaging the Community

For civic innovation to happen, citizens, themselves must also be part of the process. Younger generations have higher expectations regarding technology and the efficient delivery of services, expectations which are pushing the city to come up with solutions and make the city a more convenient place to live. But successful implementation and adoption require buy-in from the community, and so San Diego has tried many strategies.

One is their open data policy, where all data sets are out there for people to view and play with. Another is transparency. The city seeks to be transparent about what they’re deploying, so citizens understand not only what is happening but also why. For example, before installing sensors on the streetlights, San Diego sought fun and engaging way to bring the community into the conversation. Instead of doing a boring survey, they held a block party. “Basically, we told people to come co-create with us,” says David.

Another example is an app the city created called Get It Done, and which David says “harnesses the awesome power of grumpy people.” The app allows residents to report problems they see in the city, including broken parking meters, potholes, abandoned vehicles and even poop on the sidewalk. How it works is that the request comes into the department, the person who reported the problem gets a message back acknowledging the request and giving a window of time for it to be fixed, then after the problem is fixed, the resident gets a message that it has been fixed, along with a photo proving it. David says that this app increased civic engagement and creates positive interactions with the city. It also saves money and helps residents feel that they have a more responsive and agile government.

Moonshot Ideas 

David says that although San Diego is focused on “doing practical, pragmatic civic innovation” the city also goes for moonshot ideas. “Cities are piloting some of the most amazing ideas that are moonshot,” he says. 

What does David mean by moonshot? As he explains it:

“What do the CAT scan, baby formula, dust buster, computer mouse, memory foam, headphones, selfie stick, and digital camera all have to do with each other? They would not have existed without the space program. All of those things, the fundamental technology for them, came from our desire to go into space and go to the moon. So when you talk about a moonshot, these are the types of things that can come when you set your sights high and then see what innovation can follow.”

San Diego’s moonshot ideas are tied to their climate action plan, which includes 100% renewable energy, 90% diversion of waste from landfills, and 50% of single-vehicle trips changed to walking, biking or alternative modes of transportation. 

“This is really our moonshot,” says David. “And it’s driving a lot of our work. Ambitious big goals that are going to change the way we end up living.”

“What we’re doing in cities is life-changing,” adds David, as he reflects on the civic innovation work being done in San Diego and in other cities around the globe. “LIFE because of quality of life and the way we live. We’re not accepting the same old dirty, polluted, annoying, terrible way of living in our cities. And CHANGING because innovation is powering the next version of what our communities are and can be.”

3 Ugly Truths about Innovation, from John Warner, Head of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry

“He creeped me out,” John Warner recalled, as he recounted his first encounter with Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation and one of the greatest inventors in U.S. history at the time. 

It was 1986 and Edwin had just phoned to request a meeting with John Warner, one of the world’s brightest medicinal chemists. “John, I’ve been following your career,” said Edwin over the phone. “I remember when you were at the National Academy. I remember you on the cover of Celebrity Magazine. Let’s have lunch.”

“I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a stalker,’” said John. “I told six people where I was going and when I’d get back.”

“So I go and have lunch with this guy, and at lunch, he offers me a job to head exploratory research at Polaroid. I’m 24 years old. I say ‘Dude, I’m a medicinal chemist.’ I had two academic appointments already. He told me how much he wanted to pay me, and I said, ‘When do I start?’”

This is just one of the many big moves John has made in his fascinating career as an innovative chemist pioneering the concept of green chemistry across the globe—and the lesson for budding entrepreneurs is that you too cannot be afraid to pivot at the right time.

A musician turned chemist, John worked on cutting-edge pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the lab at Princeton, spent 10 years doing exploratory research for Polaroid, then 10 years as a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts, and finally left that position to form the Warner Babcock Institute, an invention factory where he and his 25 colleagues put green chemistry principles to work to create new molecules, substances, and technologies that are better for human health and the environment. 

Together John and his team have made breakthroughs in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals and oncology to material science and consumer products. In the process, John has uncovered some interesting realities about the process of innovation. If you too are looking to make an impact on the world with your great ideas, here are three things to keep in mind.

3 Ugly Truths about Innovation

Check your preconceived notions about innovation at the door. With these lessons, John gives us insight into the ugly truths of innovation.

Lesson 1: Innovation Can Seem Obvious

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“Lying in bed the night of his funeral, I’m asking myself, ‘I wonder if something I touched in the lab caused my son’s disease?’” John’s son, who was two years old, had just passed away from biliary atresia, a rare birth defect with an unknown cause. 

“At this point, I’ve probably synthesized over 2,500 new molecules, and I realized I have never been taught what makes a molecule toxic. I’ve never been taught what makes a molecule a hazard. For years of undergraduate, three and a half years of graduate school, I had never had a discussion, never had a seminar, never had a class, never had anything to talk about how you anticipate negative impacts of chemistry on human health and the environment.”

This eureka moment, plus a chance encounter with Paul Onassis, an old friend who now worked for the EPA, led Paul and John to write the revolutionary book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. Except John admits that the book wasn’t radical at all. “Anyone could have written this book; there’s nothing amazing about this book,” he says. “You’re waiting for something that should say ‘Wow, this is something!’ but it’s just so obvious. Sometimes it’s the obvious things that escape the attention.”

The ugly truth is that innovation can actually seem pretty basic and obvious. The things we take for granted and which escape our questioning eye are those that show the greatest potential for innovation.

Lesson 2: There’s Nothing New Out There

“Where do products come from?” muses John. “We take molecules. We turn them into materials. We call that basic research. We turn materials into components. We call that applied research. We turn components into devices. We call that development. When we do a lot of that, we call it manufacturing. To do this well, what does any organization have to focus on? Performance. Cost. Hey, wait a minute, that was my definition of green chemistry! There is nothing new here. There’s nothing new to the business. It’s just that now we’ve put the environment in the middle.”

Once again, John is humble to say that his cutting-edge ideas on green chemistry are obvious and ‘nothing new.’ But another ugly truth about innovation is that it does not require you to completely start from scratch. The building blocks for inventive ideas are all around you; it’s simply up to you to decide how to arrange them and from what angle they should be viewed.

Lesson 3: Innovation Happens in the Periphery

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The projects completed and underway at the Warner Babcock Institute involve everything from life-saving drugs to new materials for construction and paving to an alternative to hair dying that works with your natural ‘hair print.’ John and his team have been able to innovate in so many diverse ways because, as John puts it, “I don’t believe invention happens at the focal point. It happens in the periphery.”

Take, for example, the Alzheimer’s drug that the team has been working on for years in order to reduce the effective dose to minimal quantities. The knowledge gained from that project then led to a breakthrough in asphalt paving. They may seem like two different areas, but to John, they are quite similar – both are organic polymers wrapped around inorganic particles. “A molecule doesn’t know what industry it’s in. If we use the tools of chemistry, we can work on almost any problem, and that’s the magic.”


“It’s the highest intellectual challenge for the human race—to invent the things we need without impacting human health and the environment.” 


One of the ugly truths about innovation is that it rarely happens when you put your face down and focus exclusively on that innovation. Cutting edge invention happens when you are constantly learning from the world around you and applying that knowledge to seemingly unrelated areas.

“Today, in 2017, I would argue over 65 percent of technologies haven’t been invented yet,” says John. “This isn’t an epic battle between good and evil. This isn’t industry hoarding nasty technologies because they are so profitable. There is a fundamental disconnect in the ability to solve these problems.”

Over the years, society has become more vocal in demanding safer, sustainable technologies, which means that just about every industry is ripe for innovation to achieve this global goal. “It’s the highest intellectual challenge for the human race—to invent the things we need without impacting human health and the environment.” 

John has uncovered the ugly truths of innovation, which has lead him and his team of scientists to countless breakthroughs—and you can use those same understandings to make innovative developments happen in your industry too. Are you ignoring the obvious? Trying to reinvent the wheel? Reacting to problems instead of coming up with new solutions? There is a better way to construct the future and to illustrate that, John leaves us with this hypothetical scenario: “A big tanker truck is barreling through Cambridge, and it tips over. You can either go get body bags, or you could get a broom. Which would you rather?”

5 Lessons on Entrepreneurship from Victoria Montgomery Brown of Big Think

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“His nickname is Roger, so I figured it must be something with Roger in it,” said Victoria Montgomery Brown, who cleverly decoded Richard Branson’s email address in order to pitch him her big idea. In the end, her hunch was correct, and Branson agreed to be one of the first interviews for Big Think, a video knowledge platform that would feature elite experts sharing their wisdom with people who would not normally have access to those experts. 

Big Think was an idea that, until that time, had been scoffed at by others, but after Branson came on board, everything changed. One by one, they all started to fall like dominoes. 

Recruiting elite experts suddenly became simple when you could add the line, “Well, Richard Branson has done this.” And the same concept worked with investors. “The first five investors were pretty notable people,” says Victoria. “We had the notion that if we could get any one of them to invest, somebody else would invest alongside them. It was just like a chess game.” 

Believe in the momentum of your business is the lesson here, and from this wild journey, Victoria has plenty of other lessons on entrepreneurship to share with budding entrepreneurs who have big ideas and are ready to bring them to life.

5 Lessons for Turning Your Entrepreneurial Dream into Reality

Big Think is an online platform that offers short-form video content aimed at sharing ideas and expertise from some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers across disciplines with an audience that typically would not have access to those experts. From an initial idea in 2005 to a popular learning portal today (with 3,000 experts, a public-facing website that reaches 60 million people per month, and a corporate subscription program called Edge), Victoria has over a decade of experience in starting and running her own business. Here are five of her best tips for entrepreneurs who are just starting to work on their great idea too.

Lesson 1: Opportunity Is Sometimes Disguised

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When Victoria graduated, the economy was down. She contemplated going into banking for a year or two then starting a company, but the jobs were hard to come by. She ended up working for Charlie Rose, which was an excellent experience, but it was not what she wanted to be doing after graduating from Harvard Business School.

“When things seem bad, it can often be an opportunity,” says Victoria. What seemed like a failure at the time actually boosted her to move more quickly upon the path of entrepreneurship. Before making the move though, she suggests you start with two crucial elements—come up with a brilliant idea, and identify the people you want to work with. “Finding a business partner and a mission that can sustain even the worst times is the thing that defines Big Think the most.”

Lesson 2: Know How to Network

One of the first people to invest in Big Think was a connection that Victoria had from Harvard Business School. Getting money is tough initially because no one wants to be the first to put in. Having a connection who was willing to take a huge risk helped other investors feel safer to throw their money into the pool too.

However, Victoria cautions that you have to know the right way to network. This, for here, is one of the most important lessons on entrepreneurship. “I’m of the firm belief that you should be in touch with people that have helped you or that you can help on an ongoing basis, not just when you need something.” People can tell when you are just using them, so be pure of heart in the way you approach people. 

Lesson 3: Ask More from Your Investors

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With Big Think, Victoria says they chose individual investors with the expectation that they were not just going to give money but we’re also going to share their time, advice and expertise. They studied the passions of investors and pitched only to those who had the same core values and beliefs. Assembling the right group of investors has been invaluable to Victoria and her company. Throughout the years these investors have been the best mentors and have coached her through the rough times. 

Lesson 4: Listen to Your Audience

Big Think video interviews are structured to boost engagement, with the expert facing the camera (talking directly to the audience) and the interviewer not shown on camera. They were designed to be engaging on any mobile device, knowing that people use a range of devices to access the internet in the modern era, not just the traditional desktop computer. Most videos are between 2-3 minutes long as well because Victoria and her team found that people have shorter attention spans and so longer content was not as useful. 

Being receptive to the audience is also an important aspect of the Edge subscription within Big Think. These B2B subscriptions are meant for big companies, so when pitching the product, they learn what the objectives of the company are so they can tailor the content to the company’s needs. When organizations express an interest in topics like design thinking, diversity, inclusion and millennials, Victoria’s team looks to expand the video library in those areas. By listening to customers wants and understanding their behaviors, Big Think has been able to provide value that is greater than what you find on YouTube and other competitor websites. 

Lesson 5: The Norm May Not Work for Your Business

When Big Think first launched its Edge subscription program, the norm in the industry was to base the pricing on the number of users who would view the content. However, this means that the more people who use it, the pricing model ‘penalizes’ the company. About two months in, Victoria says they changed the pricing strategy because it was not in accordance with their values. “We believe that as many people in an organization as possible should have access to the content,” says Victoria. The new pricing structure charges based on the amount of content rather than the number of users.


“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m somebody who’s passionate about ideas and knowledge,” says Victoria.


“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m somebody who’s passionate about ideas and knowledge,” says Victoria. A firm belief in her mission to “provide people with knowledge that they can apply to their own work or life to make it better” has propelled Big Think from a big idea with many naysayers to a platform visited by millions each month and used by large corporations to provide ongoing learning in the workplace. Network connections, investors, audience, opportunities and company mission are all part of the secret sauce of success. Take advantage of these golden lessons on entrepreneurship, and you too could bring your entrepreneurial dream to life.

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company from Formlabs Cofounder Maxim Lobovsky

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“On the patio, Legal Sea Foods Cambridge, overheard two entrepreneurs pitching low-end 3D printing to VC,” read the tweet. It was sent out by a certain @mkapor, which happened to be Mitch Kapor, a notable angel investor and the founder of Lotus Software. Maxim Labovsky and cofounder David Cranor heard about the tweet that evening, after arriving home feeling discouraged about their 60th failed pitch attempt. Yes, Mitch Kapor was tweeting about them, and their big idea—Formlabs, a technology company with the mission of making 3D printing accessible for mass professional usage.

“We were pretty surprised,” says Maxim. “We laughed about it. Being my skeptical self, I said ‘You know, that’s funny!’ And David said, ‘No, let’s email him.’”

Somehow David found Mitch’s email address and sent him a message which asked “Did you hear anything you like?” Mitch responded within a few hours, and they quickly arranged a meeting. A month or two later, after showing Mitch their technology and ideas, he agreed to invest in the company. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, also became excited about the company, and shortly after everything just fell into place, with Formlabs receiving $1.8 million in funding.

As Maxim explains, the lesson for other entrepreneurs is that “you’ve got to put yourself out there and keep trying” no matter how many rejections come your way. This is just one of many lessons Maxim has gathered in his experience of growing Formlabs from an interesting concept into a profitable business of 350 employees worldwide. If you are looking to start your own business too, check out his advice below.

5 Lessons for Building a Profitable Tech Company

Using fascinating examples from the Formlabs journey, Maxim Lobovsky shares these five lessons for all budding entrepreneurs who are dreaming of building a profitable tech company.

Lesson 1: Find the Gaps in Your Industry

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Eight or 9 years ago there were only a few thousand 3D printers in the world. They were as big as refrigerators, incredibly expensive, and only used in labs of large companies and universities. Then MakerBot emerged on the scene, offering a desktop version marketed to hobbyists and sold at a fraction of the price. What Maxim noticed, though, is that there was still a huge gap in the market.

The desktop machines, although more affordable, were really only for hobbyists; they otherwise didn’t have any professional uses. Seeing this gap, Formlabs set out to build something in between—a best-of-both-worlds 3D printer that was affordable, accessible and could be used in professional applications.

Identifying the gap in the market helped Formlabs raise initial funding, and when they later put the product on Kick Starter, they found there was a huge demand. Identifying a similar in-demand gap in your market could be your ticket to a profitable company.

Lesson 2: Plan Your Company Vision

“You’ll hear a lot of times in startups that you should expect to evolve, pivot, and go through many iterations,” says Maxim. “My view on this ‘pivot and move fast’ thing is that you need to be prepared to do that, but it’s not actually something to strive for.”

As Maxim looks back at his initial pitch deck, he points out that the core of what Formlabs is doing today is essentially the exact same thing they laid out six years ago before they had even built anything. Their sales pitch from those earlier years pointed out that same gap in the market, it discussed the same applications for their 3D printer that are still the major applications today, and it talked about selling the printer to many of the same companies that are Formlabs key customers today. “I’m definitely a fan of slowing things down and really being convinced about your plan rather than just going all in.”

Lesson 3: Buckle Up, It’s a Rollercoaster

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In September 2012 Maxim and his co-founders decided to put their product on Kickstarter and as he recollects, “we quickly exceeded even our most optimistic expectations.” Even though Kickstarter was historically more consumer-oriented and lower-price-oriented than their company, they ended up locking $450,000 in pre-orders on the first day, and by the end of the month, they had raised $3 million. Thousands of inquiries were pouring in from potential customers, and the biggest tech media caught wind and started to write about them.

Four to 6 weeks after the Kickstarter experience, things swung in the entirely opposite direction. “We were still recovering,” says Maxim, “then this happened: we got sued by the largest 3D printing company in the world, 3D Systems. The company was suing Formlabs (in a lawsuit that was literally only based on their Kickstarter video) for infringement. 

“People talk about the rollercoaster of startups, that there are emotional highs and lows. I think we had that times ten with that whole series of events,” says Maxim. Becoming an entrepreneur and launching your own company can be unpredictable. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to experience both wins and losses.

Lesson 4: Don’t Let “Advice” Hold You Back

Advisors and investors had a gloomy outlook for the company because of the lawsuit. Maxim and his co-founders were told that they can’t really do a lot when people are afraid about the future of the company. They were told that they couldn’t raise money, hire key people, and acquire more customers because all parties would be worried that the company may go out of business. 

“The advice from all sides was ‘You have to settle immediately. You can’t fight this. You don’t have the money and resources to win,’” says Maxim. The Formlabs founders didn’t like that option because it felt like 3D Systems was essentially telling them to go away or to be acquired for no money. That was not what they were looking to get out of their entrepreneurial venture, so they decided to handle it differently. While the lawsuit was going on, they kept moving forward as if it was business as usual. They sold a lot of machines, hired a lot of people, and even raised a large amount of funding by the end of 2013.

In the end, they won the lawsuit because 3D Systems did not have rights to the stereolithography technology used in the Form 1 3D printer made by Formlabs. The company’s success today can, in part, be attributed to the founders NOT taking the advice of the ‘experts.’

Lesson 5: If You See Opportunities, Jump on Them

At the beginning of 2013, Formlabs made an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an annual event where several hundred thousand people come to learn about new consumer electronics. At CES that year there happened to be a documentary crew that was walking around and had decided to focus on 3D printing. There were a lot of 3D printing companies at the event, and for some reason, the documentary crew found Formlabs and wanted to film them. After the event was over, they asked if they could continue filming.

“We were very close to telling the documentary crew to go away because we were busy building our thing,” says Maxim. However, they agreed to let the documentary crew come to the office to spend more time with them. Over the course of the next year, the documentary crew filmed countless hours of footage of 3D printing companies including Formlabs, 3D Systems, and MakerBot. 


“You’ve got to have a good amount of confidence in what you’re doing and yourself because so many people are going to tell you different things, and you’re going to feel a lot of different things as you go.” 


The documentary, titled Print the Legend, came out in 2014 and got a coveted first-page spot on Netflix. Suddenly thousands of people interested in 3D printing became aware of Formlabs, a lesser-known company competing against giants. As Maxim calculates, it would have cost $2 million in Google ads to drive the amount of traffic to their website that came from those who saw the documentary. Although some may say this was just luck, Maxim says that they learned a valuable lesson: “If you see opportunities, jump on them.”

Maxim admits that there were a few times when he thinks the company could have accelerated faster than it did, but he wouldn’t really change anything that happened in the process of creating Formlabs. He adds that “You’ve got to have a good amount of confidence in what you’re doing and yourself because so many people are going to tell you different things, and you’re going to feel a lot of different things as you go.” 

By sticking to the company vision, seizing opportunities, and listening to instinct, Maxim and his co-founders have built a profitable business in one of the hottest areas of modern technology. Follow his advice and you could start building a profitable tech company, too—just make sure to buckle up and hold on for the ride.

The Gamino Guide: 4 Tips on Achieving Ambitious Innovation Goals from New York City CTO Miguel Gamino

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“When I was in San Francisco, we did a big public Wi-Fi project called SFWiFi, and we were at an event talking about it, a big community town hall event at a library,” recalls Miguel Gamino, the former Chief Technology Officer in New York City. “A mother came up to me afterwards, and she thanked me, and she was almost in tears. She thanked me for not just building the Wi-Fi network, but for choosing to leave it on after the library closed.” 

“I think she envisioned this bank of light switches and when we closed the library, we shut them all off and we chose to leave the internet on. It wasn’t really a conscious decision though. The Wi-Fi was just always on.”

“I was confused, so I asked, “Help me understand what you are talking about?” She said that her son would sit on the steps of the library after it closed each night to finish his homework.”

“When I tell the story, I still get chills, remembering her emotion. In that very moment, I was proud and ashamed at the same time because at least we had given them an option, but really? San Francisco, the innovation capital of the world. That was as good as we could do? To expect a student to sit on the steps of a public library just to do his homework?”

“We can do more. So when I get really passionate about this broadband thing, its encounters like that really make it sink in.”

Working as CTO under Mayor Bill de Blasio, Miguel (who, in past lives, founded two tech companies and worked as CIO for El Paso and San Francisco) now strives to understand the challenges and struggles of New York City residents so he can apply technological solutions that improve the way they interact with the city. Several initiatives are taking place, in all departments throughout the city, as Miguel also works to achieve an ambitious and important goal: to fight socio-economic inequality by bringing high-speed broadband internet service to every individual in the city—all 8.5 million of them.

With a city budget of almost $90 billion, and 400,000 city workers, the environment is huge, and achieving innovation goals doesn’t always come easy—but Miguel’s experience is proof that it can be done. If you are currently struggling to push innovation in your company or industry, perhaps it is time to take a page from Miguel’s playbook. 

The Gamino Guide: 4 Tips for Achieving Innovation Goals

Entrepreneurs in any market can apply Miguel’s winning innovation strategy to achieve cutting-edge breakthroughs in products and services. Here are four of his top tips to reach your company’s innovation goals.

1. State Your Values

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Miguel was looking to move away from his government position in San Francisco when he was approached by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who communicated his desire to use technology as a tool to help improve equity and prosperity for New Yorkers. He was looking to dive into full-scale projects instead of pilots, and willing to fail fast and recover versus going slow. It was an exciting but risky venture, and one of the main reasons Miguel decided to come on board as CTO.

What Miguel discovered was that there was actually a lot of planning that they had put into their digital and smart city movement. The huge city plan was then boiled down into four value statements that are used as a guiding light for technology projects. “Every single one of those things is just as relevant, or maybe even more relevant today than they were four years ago,” says Miguel.

Stating personal, company or city values is the best way to create a roadmap for all future endeavors—guiding principles that are applied to any new project and are the thrust behind any forward momentum. Write them down, and they will be a constant reminder of who you are and what you stand for as you embark upon the path of innovation.

2. Be Bold

A bold spirit is what has lead New York City to achieve such great things in the area of technology innovation. Having not lived there before, this is something Miguel witnessed firsthand within the first year he took the position of CTO. New York has a history of doing big things, and ambition is the norm. That boldness allows Miguel and his colleagues to think big and have conversations that might night happen in other cities. 

When Miguel explains his goal of universal broadband access for all New York City residents, he admits that sometimes people look at him like he is crazy. That is when he reminds them that many years ago, someone had the idea to dig into the ground, set up rails, put an oversized aluminum can inside and then bury it. We call it the subway system today, and in New York City you likely take it for granted, but you can’t imagine the city functioning without it. 

Bold ideas may take time and money to implement, but Miguel hopes that one day universal broadband access will also become commonplace. To achieve great things, you have to think big and act big. Boldness is a requirement in achieving innovation goals.

3. Collaborate

collaborate open graph

One technology initiative in New York City is known as NYCX, which revolves around the notion that the government can do better to engage with industry. As Miguel explains it, “At its core, what this is really about is changing the conversations that we have and the relationships that we have between city government, the community at large, and the technology industry.”

Take the example of autonomous vehicles. Companies spend years working to develop this technology. When it is finally ready for production, they become impatient because they want the tech to hit the streets, but cities aren’t ready for that tech. The way Miguel sees it, the sooner the city can be involved (in a way that the industry sees as beneficial), the smoother the process will be, and the more benefits that will come to all involved.

In New York City they have set up an Advisory Council that is made up of CEOs of giant tech companies as well as community leaders—and these community spokespeople play an important role. To date, no one has been able to successfully get community folks at the same table, in the same rank, as powerful governmental and industry players. Collaboration with the community means that the government can hear the challenges and ideas of everyday residents, and companies can potentially make better products that help solve those problems.

Brainstorming and implementing innovative solutions requires all stakeholders to be at the table. Making sure that everyone is included is one key to successful collaboration.

4. Learn from the Customer

A single mother living in New York City may qualify for a range of programs, including affordable housing, food, and transportation. Having to manage kids and two hourly jobs, plus navigating public transportation and city hall, means it can be quite difficult for her access the services that she qualifies for.

A family living in Brownsville, which has the largest density of public housing of any neighborhood, struggles with the issue of safety. The area is dangerous, particularly at nighttime, and there are no safe common spaces outside. For them, what you see in the movies is reality—you do not go outside after dark.


“The digital revolution is upon us,” says Miguel. “The reality is that the world is changing faster than it ever has before. We really need to lean into it. We can’t just sit back and watch it happen.”


These are just two examples where Miguel stresses that we must learn about the problems that citizens are facing so we can understand and develop adequate solutions. This should not come from guesses or assumptions but from actually talking to the people.

Returning to the issue of universal broadband access, Miguel acknowledges that, “Many of the people that are making these decisions are people who have the luxury of having it.” Since they have a different experience with broadband access, they don’t understand how important it is or what life would be like without it. 

Where are you getting your inspiration for innovation? In-house, or are you actually talking to the customers who will be buying and using your product or service? The best solutions will always come from listening to and learning from the customer.

“The digital revolution is upon us,” says Miguel. “The reality is that the world is changing faster than it ever has before. We really need to lean into it. We can’t just sit back and watch it happen.” When it comes to innovation, this advice is as relevant for companies and entrepreneurs as it is for governments and city officials. Take a page out of the Gamino Guide, and you can push innovation further and achieve even your most ambitious innovation goals.