Pick up a FastFWD business card, and you might find three names and organizations on the back. That will either be the strength of or the cause of death for the partner-laden social good entrepreneurship accelerator that launched this spring with $1 million in foundation funding.
Those names are prominent ones in this community and represent the three primary stakeholders leading the effort: Garrett Melby, the managing partner of social good accelerator Good Company Group, investor turned Wharton Social Impact Initiative Senior Director Jacob Gray and Story Bellows, of the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.
“Let’s open up our public problems to private solutions,” said Mayor Nutter Tuesday at the first open convening of the initiative, originally called the Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership. “We need your help.”
That’s the bedrock of the local government slice of social entrepreneurship that has been on the march in Philadelphia since at least Good Company’s launch in 2009 and sped in recent years with a series of stakeholder meetings. The pitch has always been a clear one: Philadelphia has problems, so let’s use them as fodder to build businesses with solutions.
The Tuesday event was a modest one, attended by maybe 50 people, a bulk of whom were from one of the three stakeholder groups, inside brightly-lit 2401 Walnut Street, with sweeping views of a dreary morning drifting away from University City. Welcomes from Bellows and Melby and Gray were followed by bright-eyed Penn interns, guest speakers and a mostly self-congratulatory panel of city public safety officials, there to kick off what would be the incubator’s first social good focus; crime.
This fall, FastFWD will welcome a call for interested companies that want mentorship, incubation, access to real city data, problems and staff and a chance to launch a venture that aims to solve problems in and around public safety.
Managed by Good Company, FastFWD will host a 12-week accelerator program starting in February for select companies and, ideally, some of those products will be piloted by the city and its police department. Pilot programs should be implemented beginning in June 2014 and impact should be seen by July, with plans to “evaluate and replicate” from there, as one of the many sleekly designed slides read during the event.
Participating entrepreneurs will pass the time in the beautiful third floor coworking space of the recently vacated 3rd Ward building, now being managed by Impact Hub Philly.
Though they may be incubated for a time in fast developing South Kensington, the solutions can come from around the world. Prepped by dozens of interviews with presumed subject matter experts, the FastFWD coalition is expecting entrepreneurs to focus on impact to the built environment, issues of recidivism, community violence or other similarly-themed enabling technologies, like predictive crime fighting.
Why crime? No one is against fighting it, and there’s enough money being thrown at it that someone must be building a business around it. In this city, nearly $1.8 billion was spent on public safety in 2012, said Nutter, out of a nearly $4 billion budget. Some $200 million of that is in open bid contract spending.
“What we can do today, we’re already doing or planning to do,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Nola Joyce matter-of-factly during the panel. Then addressing what, if any, interested entrepreneurs who may have been in the room: “Your market is what we can do tomorrow.”
This reporter took three ideas back out to the rainy early afternoon from the event:
- Social entrepreneurship is the next in a line of efforts that started organically enough in Philadelphia and have been embraced by institutions, with the help of an open-armed Nutter administration, keen on public-private partnerships. Think about how civic hacking went from a privately-built OpenDataPhilly.org to Code for America to an Open Data Executive Order to one of the country’s first Chief Data Officers. Can Bellows and Urban Mechanics partner Jeff Friedman be the kind of civil servant champions to social enterprise that Mark Headd has been to open data?
- Wharton could use a hook to bolster its leadership role among business schools. After news broke that admissions were down at an Ivy League institution that has its roots in finance and been comfortable being one of the world’s best because of it, there’s no question that some there are looking for what’s next. Its entrepreneurship strengths are nothing to ignore, but the nascent Social Impact Initiative could be something to grow on. Can mission find any roots at one of the oldest capitalistic schools in the country?
- Institutional partnerships have a higher mortality rate than even the most at-risk young people in the most dangerous of Philadelphia neighborhoods. Remember how badly the first class of the Project Liberty startup incubator went? Knight Foundation money stalled as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s publishing company lacked an internal leader, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners, DreamIt Ventures and Drexel University slowly backed away. Things got more streamlined with the second class once a project manager came on, but nothing with any real impact has happened — though Project Liberty just won another $345,000 from Knight. Will this foundation funded accelerator program find a better fate or will it crumble because of lack of central leadership like so many partnerships before it?
The city has thrown its weight behind this: pledging to open its data and departments, a kind of transparency that has precedent by partnering with Code for America fellows twice — and currently working with the nonprofit to “reform the procurement process,” as Nutter boasted at the event.
Now the test will be if Good Company, which just lost its executive director unexpectedly, can attract top-flight social ventures in public safety and deliver a meaningful incubation experience to constitute it an act of, as this reporter implored of them in early social entrepreneurship commentary two years ago, “getting louder.”
Likewise, here’s the biggest challenge yet for the five-year-old Wharton Social Impact Initiative, which hasn’t had as high profile a local initiative as partnering on this $1 million swing at an idea that has been bubbling up for years here.
These institutions are taking hold of something that started as a grassroots effort in technology and entrepreneurship circles here and have the chance to give it a kind of lasting impact and permanence only they can. It might make you think of a parallel to the public safety problems FastFWD is meant to attack.
Talking about recidivism among prison populations, embattled city Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla said at the event something that could easily translate to institutional recidivism to complacency: “The only way to slow it is to create and sustain a community connection.”
Our friends at NewsWorks were also at the event.
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