Madison Start up up Polco hold agreement with Dane County
Should Wisconsin legalize marijuana and regulate it, like alcohol?
Should Dane County borrow $120 million to build a new jail?
Should the U.S. ban the use of plastic shopping bags in stores?
If you want to have your say on issues — including those three — there’s a way for Dane County residents to do it now, through Polco, a Madison startup company. All it takes is a smartphone or a computer. Fresh off its win of the “People’s Choice” award at Tuesday night’s Wisconsin Innovation Awards, Polco’s website has gone live in the Madison area, tabulating votes and collecting public comments on issues via its online and mobile voting platform.
Polco has forged an agreement with the Dane County Clerk’s office and is “exploring opportunities” for a pilot project with the city of Madison, said Polco CEO and co-founder Nick Mastronardi. Any resident can sound off on a variety of issues through ballots on Polco’s website or, in some cases, on Dane County’s website, through the Legistar system.
“We pick out a series of issues that we think people might be interested in,” County Clerk Scott McDonell said. “It’s a good entryway … to find out more about what’s going on in county government.” To take a position on an issue, a resident has to set up an account and the person’s identity can be verified through voter registration files. Each person can vote once on an issue and can only comment on the side corresponding to the vote. In other words, if you vote “yes,” you can only post your opinion in favor of the issue; you can’t cross over and respond to someone who voted “no,” Mastronardi said.
“That mitigates so much of the mudslinging, the trolling, the vitriol,” he said. The goal, Mastronardi said, is: “Broader, more informed participation in government policies. We want to simplify the process,” he said, adding, “and I think there’s a great business opportunity there, as well.”
Mastronardi, 35, started Polco in May 2015. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force and member of the Air Force Reserve with a PhD in economics from the University of Texas-Austin, he taught at the Air Force academy in Colorado and worked at Amazon before he came up with the concept and took part in the Seed Sumo business accelerator in Bryan/College Station, Texas. A several-month stint in 2011 working at the White House as a senior economist for the Council of Economic Advisers helped spur Mastronardi’s interest in providing a broader forum for public opinion.
“These are complex issues. We need more people to weigh in on them,” he said. In Madison, Bunker Labs, 510 Charmany Drive, brought Mastronardi into the co-working space/incubator aimed at veterans and helped him get into the Madworks accelerator, also in University Research Park. Since then, Polco has won numerous competitions: The information technology prize in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan contest. The $5,000 runner-up prize in Notre Dame’s McCloskey Business Plan Competition, and a chance to pitch to the IrishAngels investing group. The People’s Choice award at the Wisconsin Innovation Awards. The company also has graduated from Madworks; landed a $100,000 loan from Whitewater’s Community Development Association; and is putting together its first “seed” round of financing.
Polco will face another contest Tuesday, as a finalist at the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Pressure Chamber, as part of the Chamber’s neXXpo business expo and the Forward Fest entrepreneurial festival. McDonell said he hopes the $500 the county is paying for Polco’s services will raise awareness for county issues and increase participation.
“We just want to see how it works, whether the public reacts positively to it, and to help a local, small-business startup,” McDonell said. He said the issues up for voting on Polco are from the county’s legislative agenda and are aimed at creating conversation. “County government tends to be invisible. If we can try to remedy that, that would be great,” said McDonell. Madworks prizes In addition to Polco’s popular vote, the Madworks accelerator’s graduation Monday came with a pitch contest of its own. Emonix won the $5,000 economic impact award for a system that improves the efficiency of water softeners, reducing salt use and cutting costs. WeightUp Solutions won a $2,500 award for its system to monitor the motion of weightlifters.