Polco Wins Pitch Contest, Chance to Meet with Silicon Valley VCs

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

It seems fitting that in this election year, a startup developing technology aimed at improving public policy would capture of one of Wisconsin’s more closely watched pitch competitions.

Polco won the third annual “Pressure Chamber” contest on Tuesday. The event, a production of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, is one of more than 40 being held as part of Forward Festival, an annual conference in Madison, WI, focused on entrepreneurship and innovation.

By virtue of its win, Madison-based Polco gets a spot on an all-expenses-paid trip to Palo Alto, CA, in October to meet with Silicon Valley investment firms.

Polco, which has developed software that lets cities, counties, and other organizations solicit input from residents and incorporate their feedback on issues when creating public policy, is no stranger to marquee technology and investor markets. Chief operating officer Alex Pedersen joined Polco last month from Google; he worked in strategy, planning, and analysis at the Internet giant, and was based in Mountain View, CA. Polco Co-founder and CEO Nick Mastronardi, who gave the company’s pitch, previously worked as an economist at Amazon and, before that, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

Several employees at Polco, whose name is short for “policy confluence,” have military backgrounds, said Mastronardi.

“We love public policy and public service,” he said. “But most of all, we love technology.”

Launched last year, the startup is a graduate of the Seed Sumo accelerator in Bryan, TX—a city Polco counts as a customer. Though it has been headquartered in Wisconsin from the beginning, you get the impression that the current year is when things have really started falling into place. In June, Polco took first place in its category at the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. And just last week, the company announced that Dane County, where Madison is located, had begun using Polco’s software platform.

During his pitch last night, Mastronardi said that his company’s digital tools are aimed at “meeting citizens where they are.” He explained that users can vote or comment on proposed policies by going directly to their city or county’s website, or by clinking links next to news stories about bills that were introduced recently.

Mastronardi said that unlike SurveyMonkey and some of Polco’s other competitors, its users’ identities must be verified against a voter registration file. Without that authentication step, he said, it can be difficult to determine whether someone voted more than once. Government officials can use Polco to analyze trends by age, gender, and other traits on the backend—what Mastronardi called “sexy civic analytics.”

Polco’s customers, who pay monthly fees starting at $500 to use the software, include Mountain View, CA; Fayetteville, GA; Jersey City, NJ; Austin, TX; and Whitewater, WI, Mastronardi said.

The startup on Tuesday beat out Lynx Biosciences, Rigbot, Manifestly, and AkitaBox, which took second place. The results were determined by an audience vote, in combination with scores from a panel of judges that included venture capitalists from outside Wisconsin.

Last year’s “Pressure Chamber” winner was BluDiagnostics, which is developing a saliva-based fertility test. The Madison-based startup followed that win, and another the following day, with a $600,000 funding round in January.

Polco is currently raising a $450,000 seed round. Mastronardi said that money will give his company the needed runway to continue growing, on what it hopes is a path toward profitability.