For-profit start-up accelerator aims to make public media ‘Matter’ to Silicon Valley

By Andrew Lapin

The start-up accelerator unveiled a year ago as an experiment in bringing Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation to public media has rebranded itself in a move to attract a wider range of ideas and investors.

Matter, the project first introduced by Public Radio Exchange as the Public Media Accelerator, has shifted its emphasis to for-profit media entrepreneurship and set up headquarters in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, just down the street from where Twitter was founded.

Matter c.e.o. Corey Ford believes “the best entrepreneurs are driven by the impact they want to have on the world.” (Photo courtesy of Matter)

“It’s not another public-media–named group with an acronym,” said Jake Shapiro, c.e.o.  of Massachusetts-based PRX. “We wanted it to be something that’s actually representative of its status.”

The term “public media” was dropped from the firm’s name in order to “cast a really wide net” among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, he said. Focusing on the needs of nonprofit startups would have been “potentially undermining or distracting” from Matter’s mission, which is to encourage innovation in public media.

Shapiro conceived the idea of a start-up accelerator for public media in July 2011 with John Bracken, director of journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation. Knight initially committed $2.5 million in funding to solicit both nonprofit and for-profit startups and to provide financial and mentorship support to develop them into fully fledged media ventures.

Plans to test new nonprofit or hybrid business models or to incubate ideas within public stations — part of the accelerator’s first pitch to pubcasting leaders during the Integrated Media Association conference in Austin, Texas in March — are no longer in the mix.

One public media station is playing a high-profile role in launching Matter: KQED in San Francisco is a major financial partner. The station pulled $1.25 million from a capital-reserve fund that typically covers equipment repairs and software upgrades, matching the $1.25 million that Knight is now providing. The investment gives KQED — along with Knight and PRX — an equity share in any profits generated from successful Matter startups. Shapiro declined to discuss how the revenues will be split.

Corey Ford, c.e.o. of Matter, took steps to reposition the accelerator after his official start date in April. Ford, who earned an MBA from Stanford University’s Institute of Design, previously directed Runway, a program for aspiring entrepreneurs operated by Google Chair Eric Schmidt’s venture-capital fund, Innovation Endeavors. He also has public media credentials as a former TV producer with credits on 17 Frontline documentaries. Ford also hired former New York Times reporter and digital entrepreneur Jigar Mehta as Matter’s director of operations.

PRX c.e.o. Jake Shapiro. (Photo courtesy of Matter)

The rebranding — which comes less than a month after the launch of a science-based long-form journalism startup also named Matter — was necessary if the accelerator was to succeed, Ford said. “We’ve created a place that can help public media institutions innovate and disrupt themselves, and in order to do that we needed to build a space that was independent and focused on entrepreneurs,” he said.

Entrepreneurs don’t see a divide between profit and public service in their line of work, he added.

“People who really, truly understand entrepreneurs understand that it’s not just ‘My job is to make money’ or ‘My job is to have an impact,’” Ford said. “The best entrepreneurs, I think, are driven by the impact they want to have on the world.”

Matter will launch four rounds of five teams each over the next two years, cycling through a new group every six months and providing every team with $50,000 in funding, with PRX lending strategic support and mentorship. In each round, the five teams will work alongside each other, elbow to elbow, honing their ideas until they present them to a room full of potential investors at the concluding “Demo Day.”

With its investment in Matter, KQED will be among those present on Demo Day. President John Boland said that one of the primary reasons behind his pursuit of a financial partnership in the accelerator was to ensure “a seat at the table” for KQED to consider each pitch that comes out of the project.

For-profit companies and tech giants such as Google will also be welcome to attend Demo Day and pursue the completed projects. Boland says that even if public-media–funded startups find homes outside the field, the process of funding and cultivating them will still benefit public media.

“This was a risky investment strategy, and the only way that it would make sense is to realize that, actually, a huge amount of value is in the innovation that goes on, the talent that we attract, the ideas that emerge, the process itself,” Shapiro said.

Public media has already benefited from media innovations created by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Boland said. He pointed to Storify, the social-media platform that allows users to recount events by arranging tweets and other social-media postings from diverse sources. Yet the idea that entrepreneurs would be attracted to develop their ideas within the field of public media was a stretch.

“Those entrepreneurs aren’t going to be attracted to KQED, our brand, or any other public media because they don’t think it’s a place where their idea can grow and blossom and become something,” Boland said.

Ford experienced the limitations of working within public media’s risk-averse culture and decided to leave Frontline in 2006, feeling frustrated by the slow pace of change in public TV. “I really, truly felt like the world was changing dramatically and we weren’t changing at all. And that worried me,” he said.

In the essay he wrote for his Stanford application, Ford described his goal: to either bring what he would learn in the world of entrepreneurship back to public media, or to find another way to pass the media baton onto the next generation. To Ford, the opportunity to direct Matter represented an opportunity to accomplish the former.

Ford brings Matter back to a fundamental worldview.

“This is about being able to look at the world through a blank-slate perspective rather than an institutional perspective,” he said. “And it’s about building the culture of experimentation and failing early and often in order to succeed.”

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org

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