The public sector is screaming for innovation – here’s how startups should answer the call.


Innovation in the public sector is a difficult feat to accomplish. The traditional startup mantra of “fail fast and learn” is easier said than done when dealing with multiple high priority projects, bureaucratic processes and working with tax dollars as your investment capital. Successes in this space are rare and need to be publicly celebrated and analyzed so others can learn how to introduce and embrace innovative technologies in the public realm.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is one such example. This over-half-a-century-old agency has embraced innovation over the past few years through partnerships with innovation experts, such as the Transit Innovation Partnership, and by directly piloting and funding new technologies. What sets them apart from other public entities is that they’re not only introducing new software programs and apps, but they’re also pushing the barriers on “tough tech”, exploring ways to improve and speed up the modernization of their service infrastructure.

Humatics has been working with the MTA now for almost two years in trialing a new ultra-wideband (UWB) based train positioning technology. The success of the UWB pilot is remarkable and one that we equally share with the MTA and our partners. In light of recently celebrating our one year anniversary of operating on the Canarsie Line, we wanted to highlight the key characteristics that can help a technology provider or startup succeed while working with public agencies.

  • Play to your strengths, educate and be humble: Tech startups bring valuable knowledge and products but they can’t be successful on their own. The partnerships in our pilot were instrumental to our success. For example, we focused on our secret sauce–navigation–and worked closely with the MTA employees and well established suppliers who had critical operational and domain knowledge that we never could have gained in such a short time. You need to acknowledge what you don’t know and ask questions to educate yourself–a little humility on your limits goes a long way. Successful companies understand transit agencies needs and work with them on the solution while remembering that the ultimate customers are the riders. You’re not making a sale. You’re forming a partnership that can last decades.
  • Delivery is as important as a great product: You need both. Transit agencies operations are complex and constantly changing. Having a team on the ground that can work with the agencies and adapt to their operations is crucial to success. Be reliable and responsive–achieve what you say you will and keep the customer informed on progress and risks.
  • Agencies may be challenging to work with at times but they can push for large changes: The MTA pilot is the most successful of a number of Smart Cities initiatives Humatics has done. One of those reasons is that an agency such as the MTA, when they commit to change, can push it on a large scale. Our pilot designed, built and installed UWB on 5 miles of track in Brooklyn in 5 months. Another pilot did the same in Queens. The next challenge is how do we get to 50 miles, then 500. Having the MTA as a single overseeing agency that can make this scaling happen is an awesome accelerator.
  • You’re “cathedral building”: The timelines completion in transit may be long but your work remains for decades. There’s an enormous amount of pride in knowing that you’re working on something that will be moving millions of riders per year for decades to come, and in the process making their lives better. This pride resonates with our team and provides an amazing sense of purpose.

We look forward to continuing to work with the MTA and other public agencies in the future. We hope that sharing our experience helps pave the way for other technology providers and startups to successfully partner with public agencies and help them modernize and improve their systems