Aug 12, 2021 - Economy

Private sector expresses cautious optimism on bipartisan infrastructure bill

Illustration of a truck on a $100 bill.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Congress is still working through its infrastructure bill, with the ball now in the House's court after the Senate passed its own on Tuesday.

The big picture: Depending on how individual programs are ultimately set up, it could open opportunities for startups.

  • While the U.S. often touts its technological innovation, startups have historically had a strained relationship with government programs and procurement.

State of play: The Senate's bill contains a slew of grant programs for everything from cybersecurity, to alternative fuel recharging infrastructure, and battery recycling and manufacturing.

  • They range anywhere from tens of millions of dollars to several billion for a single initiative.
  • On Thursday, Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Catalyst said it will commit $1.5 billion for joint projects with the U.S. government if Congress enacts a program for tech focused on lowering carbon emissions.

Yes, but: As usual, the devil will be in the details — and specifically whether the fine print makes these programs workable for startups.

  • As we saw when the initial Paycheck Protection Plan came together, a particular rule around "affiliations" threatened to make the program inaccessible to certain startups with venture capital backing.
  • Some programs are delegating the implementation to state and local governments, who can in turn come up with their own rules and requirements that may end up making it harder for startups to participate — and create a framework of inconsistent rules around the country.
  • These are exactly the roadblocks that can turn a national opportunity into a huge miss for American startups eager to provide their cutting edge tech to the public.

Between the lines: Cautious optimism is the overall sentiment from private sector investors.

  • As EQT's Alex Darden recently told Axios' Dan Primack, he's optimistic about the legislation's "tailwinds" but remains frustrated by what he views as a lack of strategic vision.

The bottom line: This historic legislation could either be a boon to startups — and America's infrastructure — or fall short of harnessing innovative startups in its quest to push the country forward.

Editor's note: The story has been corrected to note that it's Breakthrough Energy Catalyst (not the organization's venture arm) committing funds to energy projects.

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