News & Politics

The Sad Story of How a DC Tech Incubator Fell Apart

Photograph of 1776 by Andrew Beaujon.

Once heralded as a centerpiece of DC’s tech scene, start-up incubator 1776 proved less revolutionary than its name.

February 2013

Tech-industry veterans Donna Harris and Evan Burfield launch 1776 with a $200,000 grant from the District. They invest in a first crop of more than 40 budding companies and invite them to open shop in a slick co-working space.

July 2014

After some early successes—including the trip-planning platform Ride­Scout, which Daimler will later acquire—1776 gets a PR boost when President Obama makes a surprise visit.

April 2015

The company goes on an expansion spree, starting with the purchase of Disruption Corp., a Crystal City venture-capital firm/incubator. It soon buys another start-up hub in San Francisco and, a year later, opens 1776 campuses in Dubai and New York.

November 2016

Harris, who was splitting the CEO role with Bur­field, announces she’ll step back from day-to-day operations (but will remain a board member and investor). “Co-CEO relationships can go well, but they can be challenging,” Harris says. Burfield, meanwhile, has been developing Union, a software platform that connects investors and start-ups.

February 2017

After reported financial struggles, 1776 sells its San Francisco operation. The company decides to put more emphasis on developing Union. “It was a recognition that running a physical real-estate business and a software business were very different,” Burfield says.

October 2017

Benjamin’s Desk, a WeWork-like company in Philadelphia, acquires the 1776 incubator and office space. Burfield moves away from daily leadership to focus on Union. “People were struggling to understand all the parts of 1776,” says Harris, who still runs a venture-capital fund with Burfield. “It’s a natural evolution to ask if all these things belong together.”

This article appears in the January 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.