Can Public Media Organizations Succeed Seeding Silicon Valley Startups? New Fund to Find Out

Matter Ventures CEO Corey Ford and KQED President John Boland

Three media nonprofits -- Knight Foundation, Public Radio Exchange (PRX), and KQED (you're on it, bub, no link required) have announced they're creating a $2.5 million accelerator fund for selected media startups -- of the for-profit variety -- to tap.

It's called Matter Ventures, based in San Francisco's SoMa district. Prospective candidates will be able to apply at the web site, which went live today.

KQED and Knight Foundation are kicking in $1.25 million each to fund the initiative over two years, potentially taking an equity stake in businesses that develop within the program. PRX will help run the project. The media accelerator was previously announced last December by PRX and Knight under the name Public Media X, and now KQED has come aboard. The CEO, as reported last year, will be Corey Ford, formerly of Runway, an incubator in ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt's venture capital fund, Innovation Endeavors.

KQED is a San Francisco-based, member-supported public media organization best known for its radio and TV broadcasts. Knight Foundation funds various journalism and community projects. PRX is an online clearinghouse for public radio content.

Here's how it'll work, from the press release:

The intensive, four-month acceleration program is designed for media startups with multi-disciplinary teams who have early-stage prototypes, such as participatory platforms, mobile applications, B2B media services, and content production engines. Matter will invest in entrepreneurs who show high potential to create media ventures that make a meaningful, positive impact on society while pursuing a sustainable, scalable, profitable business model. Over the course of two years, the fund will run four class cycles, each consisting of five startups....

Startups selected to participate in Matter will receive a $50,000 investment and will work side by side in a creative space in the South Park area of San Francisco's SoMa district... The structured program will kick off with an intensive design thinking and entrepreneurship bootcamp followed by a regular series of design reviews, mentoring session and educational workshops ... At the end of the four-month program, teams will pitch at a demo day to the Matter community and potential investors.

The application deadline is Jan 6. The first round of participants will start the program in February, 2013.


KQED's Joshua Johnson recently interviewed Corey Ford, because he's the Matter CEO, and KQED President and CEO John Boland, because Joshua knew where to find him on the third floor. And because he wanted to ask him, you know, what's a nice org like you doing in a space like this?

We don't want to get too self-involved here. For those of you interested in issues facing public media organizations like KQED, as well as the disruptive effect on business models and content delivery that digital technology has had on all media, have at these. For the rest of you, here are some awesome images of the Bay Area rain.

I will say this: Joshua's first question posits the idea that the cultures of Silicon Valley and public media are "diametrically opposed." As someone who has worked within both now, I think that's an interesting starting point for a pair of good discussions.

First, CEO Corey Ford, who described the new Matter accelerator as a place "where the values of public media meet the mindset of Silicon Valley."

Both of the following transcripts have been edited for length and readability...

JOHNSON: I think that, intuitively, people understand the ethos of Silicon Valley, and people who watch and listen to KQED or other public stations understand the ethos of public media – and those seem to be almost diametrically opposed. How do you get them to work together?

FORD: I don't see them as diametrically opposed. I believe you can be mission-driven and you can pursue and use the best practices of sustainable, scalable, entrepreneurship all in one. What it really comes down to is having a culture of experimentation.

JOHNSON: How did this project come about?

FORD: It all started, I believe, with a conversation between Jake Shapiro of PRX and John Bracken from the Knight Foundation, saying if you look at what's going on in Silicon Valley and how much innovation these accelerator programs are producing, is there a way that we can leverage that type of model to support innovations in the areas we care about, in the future of media that matters?

And at the same time, I used to produce films for Frontline on Public Television. I loved what we did and I believed really deeply in what we did, but around 2005 it felt like the world was changing dramatically and it didn't feel like we were changing at all.

And so I stepped away from one of the best jobs in public television because I wanted to learn more about entrepreneurship, about innovation and leadership so I could apply them, potentially, back to public media, either in the current institutions or by helping build startups that would put that mission forward.

JOHNSON: And the one biggest thing that you learned that you would like to see apply to public media is…?

FORD: It's really about building a culture of experimentation, one that is audience-centered and designed for their emerging needs, and that's not about getting it perfect. It's about taking your idea and building it in a way where you can get feedback from your audience, and then iterating on that.

JOHNSON: Why doesn't that exist in Public Media today?

FORD: Well, I am not saying that it doesn't exist in public media today...

JOHNSON: Then more broadly...

FORD: Right. I think it's challenging almost anywhere. You have to be really intentional about thinking about how to build a culture of experimentation, and I think any institution that's been around for a while, once they've had their successes, it's more risky to experiment with them.

So part of what we are doing is creating this place where we can think about the world from a blank-slate perspective. We can ask ourselves, if we are going to build a meaningful media institution, how might we do that leveraging emerging technologies, seeking new business models, and I think most importantly designing explicitly for the needs and emerging behaviors of our audience.

JOHNSON: What kind of startups are you looking for?

FORD: The one constant in early-stage entrepreneurship is everything is going to change, so you really want to find the people and the teams who are driven by a similar mission that we're looking for. They have a vision for how their startups are going to impact society in a way that makes its citizens more informed, engaged or empowered.

In terms of specific ideas, I think they can range from participatory platforms -- think Twitter -- business-to-business services, mobile-first applications. Maybe a Kickstarter business model, designed for mobile first, which appeals to millennials, for example.

And finally what I would call not content but content-production engines. We are looking for people who think of their startups as a venture. It's not just owning how is content produced or delivered but what is the business model around that, one of the key problems to solve within the media-that-matters space.

JOHNSON: What is it about this geographic area that you think makes a good fit for innovating public media?

FORD: There is a culture to Silicon Valley that is really hard to copy anywhere else. For me, and I think it is really misunderstood in some places, what it comes down to is what does failure look like in your organization? Is it something that is celebrated by the top leadership and reverberates so that it says I can experiment and I can learn and adjust based on that? And I think Silicon Valley has that nailed.

End interview. Here's the interview with KQED President and CEO John Boland...

JOSHUA JOHNSON: This sounds like new territory for a public media organization -- to be involved and, literally, invested in a venture like this.

KQED's JOHN BOLAND: It is something new and it also fits perfectly with our strategy for KQED, which is to develop and invent a new model for public media. The reason we are doing that is the needs of our audience are changing so drastically and things in the community are changing rapidly, largely because of digital technology. So we feel we need to innovate and reinvent at a fairly rapid clip.

JOHNSON: I often deal with KQED audience members who want everything to stay exactly the way it is -- they don't want any kind of change and if you change it, I am taking my membership dollars back. But the reality is we really are in an era in which all the rules are being thrown out. So what is KQED experiencing, specifically?

BOLAND: We have to be all things to all people. Television and radio are still around and continuing, and we fully intend to continue those services in a very robust way. But we know that people are increasingly using laptops and smart phones and tablets, and they are not only accessing media in different ways, the media is being created in different ways.

Also, audiences are engaging in a kind of a two-way conversation in a way they never could with radio and television. We are definitely getting the signal from folks that you need to deliver KQED with this new digital content and services, and with the community that is convening.

JOHNSON: Explain what some of the challenges are in terms of innovation in public media, which seems to deal with some specific kinds of strictures.

BOLAND: I think we have some specific strictures and some specific opportunities. I think the opportunity part is that public media, although it is a nonprofit and that's always a struggle financially, has a financial model in terms of community support that's still working, whereas the ad-supported model in commercial media has really fallen apart on the digital side.

I think the difficulty is we are so busy keeping up with the needs of the community as we see them now and delivering the services as we see them now that it's hard to find room and resources for trying new things. A lot of the ideas are coming from entrepreneurs and people with concepts that not only are designed to become the next Google and make lots of money, but really to change the world and media in positive ways. A lot of that is happening outside our ecosystem, and we feel like we need to make that connection.

JOHNSON: So why don't we see more independent producers now, walking into their local PBS station or NPR station, saying, "I've got a great idea for this thing and it takes this much and it can be done this way and... ta-da!"

BOLAND: What's interesting is that we get a lot of independent radio or TV producers coming in with great ideas, and we engage them, but we don't necessarily get people coming in saying, "I have a new technology application that will really help you connect and serve your audience better." And the reason is they don't feel a public media organization is going to have the resources to invest in them, so they show up at a venture capital firm or an incubator or an accelerator.

JOHNSON: Talk about where the dollars for this come from. This is a huge investment that KQED is making. I can imagine someone saying, "I'd rather you just put that toward something you are already doing and keep me happy the way you're already doing it."

BOLAND: The dollars won't come away from the services we provide now or even their growth. What people don't realize is that KQED makes investments like this every year. We invest in a new radio transmitter, a new television master control. So this is coming out of that, our capital reserve fund, from which every year we spend several million dollars.

JOHNSON: For KQED members and audiences who think this is just an awesome idea but it seems hard to wrap their arms around, anything else they should know?

BOLAND: I think it's legitimate for people to raise the question -- and people have raised it-- "Is this a risky thing for KQED to do?" And I would say not really, because we are not investing in this to get a big financial return. We're smart enough to know most startups do not become Google or Apple. What we are really looking for is an innovation return.

If out of this investment we get some great ideas that are going to help us do better work, if we meet some great people whose company maybe doesn't take off but they end up coming to work for KQED, if we find some great technology that we can leverage, then I think it will be a worthwhile investment.

JOHNSON: One of the things that I have discussed with Corey Ford is the nature of failure in innovation. If this venture fails, how does that reflect on KQED?

BOLAND: I think it reflects that we are willing to take risks because the fact is we are in an environment now where you hear the phrase "fail forward." You have to try things. And I am confident we are going to learn something from this. I hope it's a good lesson and not a bad lesson.

Update 9:50 a.m. So what is an "accelerator" anyway? Hari Sreenivasan took a look at the concept last year for KQED's This Week in Northern California and PBS NewsHour.