Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump talk a big game about changing the system, but this new cadre of startups is trying to disrupt politics, beginning with the 2016 presidential race. From analytics and socializing to improving the voting experience, here are the top startups bringing the campaign to your (digital) door.
Target audience: Voters for Hillary Clinton
Michael Slaby juiced Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential runs as one of his top campaign technology officers. In 2013, he founded this Chicago-based outfit to better connect big data and politics. Backed by Eric Schmidt, Timshel boasts two dozen clients, including NGOs like the U.N. Refugee Agency, and it has become an important engine powering the Clinton campaign's high-tech voter platform for building community, fundraising, and measuring impact. "We would not sell our technology to Trump if he asked," says Slaby.
Target audience: Politicians who are trying to understand Millennials
Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson and digital strategist Patrick Ruffini felt too many Republican candidates were relying on inaccurate and outdated information to run their campaigns. So in 2014, the pair hatched this digital research and consulting firm that blends traditional polling methods and reports with social media analysis to take the public's pulse on a candidate or issue. The Alexandria, Virginia-based outfit, which provided social media intelligence to failed 2016 presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz, also tracks public data on competitors' campaign spending to allow for "better real-time decision making, rather than simply relying on a playbook or gut feel," says Ruffini.
Target audience: Everyone over the age of 18
Every election day, voters show up at their respective polling places only to leave entire portions of their ballots blank because they don't know much about various candidates. Enter BallotReady, an IBM Watson-partnered website created by Alex Niemczewski, Aviva Rosman, and Sebastian Ellefson that aims to close that knowledge gap. Voters plug in their ZIP code to get served a simple-to-digest backgrounder on any candidate--from a presidential contender to a town treasurer--assembled from publicly available data and crowdsourced information, with an editorial touch. While the for-profit, which launched out of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, currently has a presence in 25 states, its ambitious goal, Niemczewski says, is to "cover every election in every democratic nation."
Target audience: College students and Millennials
With the aspiration that "voting should fit the way we live," co-founders Seth Flaxman and Kathryn Peters are trying to boost registered voter turnout to 80 percent--a number this country hasn't seen in 130 years. Its TurboVote website acts as a gateway to all things voting, from voter registration to absentee ballot request forms, and texts citizens reminders of upcoming elections. The Brooklyn, New York-based, MacArthur Foundation-backed operation has partnered with more than 200 universities and over 30 companies, including Airbnb and Starbucks, to accelerate its civic engagement goal, and sells a technology to election officials that tracks absentee ballots, called Ballot Scout.
Target audience: Smartphone users
In an attempt to modernize the anachronistic voting booth experience, co-founders Nimit Sawhney, his brother Simer, and Isaac Charny are working to transform the act of voting into something that is both digital and mobile. Using fingerprint biometrics to verify a voter's identity and blockchain technology to keep the transaction secure, Brookline, Massachusetts-based Voatz is in the early days of building technology that will allow people to vote with their mobile phones. While the startup, with $75,000 in funding, has 10 clients, its largest deployment so far has been at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention. Says Nimit Sawhney, a former R&D head at a mobile security company, Voatz looks to have adoption in several states by 2020. From there, he believes, "it will go viral."
Target audience: Millennials
After volunteering for the 2012 Obama campaign, Elsa Sze realized that for many, democracy was "a once every four years" phenomenon. Meanwhile, as a Harvard grad student getting her joint MBA and master's in public policy, she'd attended hundreds of New England town halls--"the purest form of democracy"--but learned that "people who show up tend to be older, louder, and crankier than most. They're not necessarily representative," she says. To remedy that imbalance, she launched online community platform Agora, which allows any group to create a public live-streamed town hall, host discussions, and perform real-time polling for free. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm--which has raised $500,000 from Charles River Ventures--also sells private town halls with analytics to companies like Microsoft.
Target audience: Politicians and brands
As an undocumented immigrant trying to reform immigration, Jessica Hyejin Lee found community organizing tools severely lacking. So she and co-founder Benjamin Jones developed HandStack, a platform that enables politicians to text large groups of people simultaneously. Users receive messages like "I am the ONLY progressive candidate committed to protecting CA families, econ & environ. Do you have any questions for me?" They're sent en masse but intended to feel like a one-on-one conversation. The San Francisco-based company came out of the 500 Startups accelerator; clients include political candidates and big brands.
A Tinder for Politicians
Undecided on Trump or Clinton? These three startups use high-tech prowess to make finding a candidate as easy as ... finding a date.
Part Facebook, part Cosmo quiz, Brigade is an "ideas-based" social network that asks provocative questions to generate debates and help users find a candidate. Co-founded by Sean Parker, who also co-founded Facebook, it's bolstered by $9.5 million in financing from Salesforce's Marc Benioff and angel investor Ron Conway.
Backed by Horizon Media, VoterGuru originally helped voters sort through the bewildering array of 2016 presidential primary candidates by asking them to click along a blue-to-red temperature chart. Now the website helps pair people with Senate and third-party candidates.
With Tinder founder Sean Rad as an adviser, it's no surprise that on Voter.xyz, users swipe right if they agree with a political statement and left if they don't. The app offers matchmaking with presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates, along with personalities like Megyn Kelly and Stephen Colbert.