In mid-2015, the City of Long Beach hired its first ever Innovation Team, known in short as the “i-team.” Funded for three years with a $3 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the team of professionals with governmental, anthropological, programming and many other backgrounds is dedicated to developing tools, leveraging city resources and increasing access to those assets for the purposes of economic development.


Through an initial series of more than 700 meetings with community groups, industry leaders and other individuals, the team has identified supporting entrepreneurship as its key method for sparking economic development in the city.

The City of Long Beach hired its first-ever Innovation Team last year. Made up of a diverse group of young professionals, the team is focused on creating tools and solutions to streamline the process to start businesses in Long Beach, and to create better access to city services. Pictured from left are: Harrison Huynh, Heidi Wiersma, Alma Castro, Director John Keisler, Alex Chavez, Brittany Banayan, Ryan Murray, Eric Romero and Holly Okonkwo. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)


“Where we haven’t had much investment over the last 10 years is in the support of entrepreneurs,” John Keisler, director of the Innovation Team, told the Business Journal in an interview at city hall. “That’s an area where there’s not a lot of activity and resources being focused right now,” he said, referring to city government efforts that have been focused more broadly on employment and property development.


“We go and we investigate the challenges that entrepreneurs and business owners are facing in the city. We learn about their experience,” Keisler said of the day-to-day activities of the i-team. For example, in January, the team spent about 30 hours in the city’s Cambodia Town district to get a better feel for the needs of the area’s business corridor.


“The i-team spent 30 hours canvassing, identifying every vacant property within that area, shadowing business owners who were willing to be shadowed, doing key informant interviews to understand their experience of starting a business and the challenges that they face. Then we did a phone survey as well,” Keisler said. He added that the i-team has visited many other neighborhoods and business corridors throughout the city to perform similar research.


“What we arrived on through all these interviews and research is that there is a tremendous opportunity for the city to focus on resources and tools for starting and growing your business,” Keisler said. He noted that 98 percent of businesses in Long Beach are small, with fewer than 30 employees. “They really are the backbone of our local economy. What are we doing to support them? What are we doing to make it easier to start and grow?”


The i-team is working on concrete solutions to these questions to carry the city forward even after the Bloomberg grant period ends. Last year, the team partnered with the nonprofit Citymart to develop a new procurement process for the city, in which, rather than immediately issuing a request for proposals, the city first presents a challenge via an open-ended question sent out into the community and the world.


Thus far, the city has issued two such challenges: one asking how the city can make it easier for entrepreneurs to launch and grow in Long Beach, and another asking how the city can “catalyze a local ecosystem that supports innovation and technology.” Responses have come in from around the globe, according to Keisler.


In partnership with the nonprofit Code For America through a fellowship program, the i-team is creating a business portal to “help entrepreneurs navigate the complex startup process, from local to county to state to federal government,” Keisler said. Rather than developing a product and then launching it, one component of the portal is being built based on input from businesses and entrepreneurs, and will then be launched in a test phase through the city website. From there, more components will be made based on user feedback. “As early as this spring, people will be able to begin seeing these applications,” he said.


The i-team is also working on compiling data about employers and employment, business licensing, contracting, and more, to make available to the public in a way that has not been accomplished previously, Keisler noted.


“The big goal is to increase the number of active business licenses in the city,” Keisler said. “We want a really robust, vibrant, diverse small business environment, because resilient cities do not depend on one large employer. They are very diverse economically; they engage diverse populations.”


In 2016 alone, Keisler said the i-team is slated to launch more than 20 initiatives, both large and small scale, all with the goal of increasing access to services and assisting entrepreneurs.


In 2016 alone, Keisler said the i-team is slated to launch more than 20 initiatives, both large and small scale, all with the goal of increasing access to services and assisting entrepreneurs.