'Rockstar' innovators descend on Washington

A dream team of innovators have descended on Washington, D.C., where they spend six months within the federal government to work on initiatives to support entrepreneurs, small businesses and the overall economy.

Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park on Aug. 23 announced the inaugural batch of the Presidential Innovation Fellows – 18 innovators from academia, nonprofit organizations and the commercial sector. The fellows were picked from a pool of nearly 700 applicants.

The fellows “agreed to drop everything, come to D.C. in the middle of the summer and work incredibly hard to do great things for the American people,” Park said at an event held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in downtown D.C.

Park was joined by U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel, Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey Zients, Office of Personnel and Management Director John Berry, and Veterans Affairs Department CTO Peter Levin, among other officials.

In discussing the process of releasing and implementing the Digital Government Strategy, VanRoekel said he and Park soon realized technology wasn’t the only thing needed to build an innovative, 21st-century federal sector.

“Just releasing toolkits and just unleashing technology wasn’t enough; we needed to bring to bear the power of people in government,” he said.

Following that "aha" moment, VanRoekel and Park on May 23 launched the Presidential Innovations Fellows, calling on entrepreneurs to come to Washington for a fixed period of time to work on five innovation projects.

Within three weeks of announcing the program, more than 700 applicants had applied for 18 positions, VanRoekel said, and thousands more expressed their interest in supporting the initiative.

“There was an explosion of civic-mindedness . . . of dedication to the nation’s future,” Park said. “It was an incredible difficult task if you take the 700 applicants who were amazing and somehow boil them down to just 18 folks that would actually come to D.C. and be fellows.”

Despite the challenge is selecting just 18, the officials succeeded in paring them down. The five projects and the newly minted fellows - 16 men and two women - include:

Blue Button for America:

  • Henry Wei, MD – Practicing doctor and informatics expert, New York, N.Y.
  • Ryan Panchadsaram – Founder of Pipette, San Francisco, Calif.
  • Matt McCall – Information systems expert, Baltimore, Md.


  • Clay Johnson – Best-selling author, open government technologist and entrepreneur, Washington, D.C.
  • Jed Wood – Interaction designer, web developer, and entrepreneur, Chicago, Ill.
  • Adam Becker – Web developer and co-founder of civic engagement startup GovHub, Oakland, Calif.


  • Kara DeFrias – User experience writer from TurboTax San Diego, Calif.
  • Phil Ashlock – Open government program manager and co-founder of Civic Commons, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Danny Chapman – Award-winning website designer, Riverside, R.I.
  • Greg Gershman – Software engineer and serial entrepreneur, Baltimore, Md.
  • Ben Balter – Software engineer, Washington, D.C.

The 20% Initiative:

  • Karl Mehta – Serial entrepreneur and founder of PlaySpan, Fremont, Calif.

Open Data Initiatives:

  • Ian Kalin – Navy veteran and managing director of an energy sector startup, San Francisco, Calif.
  • Marina Martin – Web developer and business efficiency expert, Seattle, Wash.
  • Raphael Majma – Open data researcher, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Nick Bramble – Director, Law & Media Program, Information Society Project at Yale Law School, New Haven, Conn.
  • Dmitry Kachaev – Software engineer, Arlington, Va.
  • Nathaniel Manning – Robotics entrepreneur and member of the World Economic Forum’s Personal Data team and Google’s Data Colloquium team, San Francisco, Calif.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.


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