When a local business owner heard the City of Hilliard’s slogan, “Real People, Real Possibilities”, he knew he had come to the right place to test his new coffee product.
Steve Johnson’s company, Off The Beaten Path, has been brewing coffee and tea for six years. The beverages are cold-brewed over a period of time to not bring out bitterness or lower caffeine content, and then infused with Nitrogen gas to create flavor profiles without drinkers needing to add creams and sweeteners.
Now, the business is taking the next step in getting its product to market with the help of City of Hilliard staff members who are promoting innovation and economic development through Hilliard City Lab.
And City of Hilliard staff members also were happy to be taste testers in their role as Hilliard City Lab Innovation Ambassadors.
Hilliard City Lab began in 2022 as a partnership between the City of Hilliard and Converge Technologies, a technology incubator. In short, Hilliard City Lab turns the entire Hilliard community into a real-world lab where start-up technology firms and other companies can test and launch their products into commercialization. The City of Hilliard provides access to its infrastructure, expertise, data, existing technology, and funding opportunities. There are already eight companies in the Converge Technologies space developing drones, tracking devices, radar systems, software, large-scale 3D printing processes, and more.
The success of this partnership inspired the City to create a working group of staff members who could serve as Innovation Ambassadors, identifying potential challenges and opportunities that Hilliard City Lab partners and processes could solve and benefit from.
The group of about 20 staff members meet monthly to brainstorm innovative ideas to improve City processes. Those ideas are taken to Hilliard City Lab businesses – another way the City becomes a testbed for new technologies.
In return, the goal is that Hilliard will benefit from the attraction, retention, and expansion of technology businesses, along with the creation of associated high-paying jobs.
Hilliard City Manager Michelle Crandall, who developed the program, said she has been pleased with the staff’s response.
“These are people who have ideas on how to deliver City services more efficiently and need the opportunity to share those ideas,” said Crandall. “It also allows them to take a break from their everyday tasks and think more creatively.”
Several ideas are already in motion.
- Ubihere, one of the companies, is working with the City’s Operation Department to develop sewer sensor technology. The goal is for a sensor to notify the City when the water level is increasing on the sewer system, triggering a response from the City before basements are flooded.
- Recently, the City tested an “Americans With Disabilities Act compliance cart” developed by Converge, which pedestrians push along sidewalks to locate spots that would be difficult to traverse in a wheelchair. When the cart hits a bump, it automatically takes a geo-tagged picture of the sidewalk and uploads it to the Internet for review and possible repair. The cart was tested by members of the Hilliard Senior Center on their everyday neighborhood walks.
- Lighthouse Avionics is working with the Division of Police to develop a drone for first responders to survey crash sites or crime scenes before police officers arrive on scene. To guide the drones, Lighthouse is also developing “virtual control towers” — collections of camera sensors that can track flying objects up to three miles away.
- IC3D, a 3D printing company, is working with City’s Recreation and Parks staff to design benches and tree gates to replace metal structures that quickly rust under weather conditions.
Anastasia Bradley, the City’s Aquatics Supervisor, is one of the ambassadors.
“There are a lot of problems to solve in my position, so having the ability to work with people who might have better ideas is cool,” she said. “And, it’s nice to see the behind-the-scenes work of projects I’m not directly involved in, like the tree gates. It creates a community within a community.”
Andrew Wilson, the City’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Administrator, thought of several projects to tackle during a recent tour of the Hilliard City Lab.
“It’s rare in government to have an innovation program that combines City staff with the private sector,” he said. “Combining ideas and skills leads to better solutions, engineering value, and an overall bang for the buck for taxpayers.”