Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Propel wins $100,000 grant from Future Cities Accelerator to tackle poverty

The recently-crowned Civic Startup of the Year continues to garner recognition — and funding. CEO Jimmy Chen says the grant will go toward hiring.

Propel, whose app allows SNAP recipients to keep track of their accounts, just landed a $100,000 grant.

(Courtesy photo)

Propel has been on a roll lately.

Last month, the social impact startup, which is based in Cobble Hill and makes apps for SNAP (aka “food stamps”) enrollees, won the Make it in BK pitch competition. And just recently, it was named Civic Startup of the Year at our 2016 Brooklyn Innovation Awards.

Time to add another achievement to the list. Propel has been selected to receive a $100,000 grant from the Future Cities Accelerator. The newly launched program, a joint initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Unreasonable Institute, is backing 10 startups throughout the U.S. The recipients were chosen from among 316 applicants through a four-step process, including site visits.

In addition to the $100,000, participants in the Future Cities Accelerator will receive training in rapid prototyping and fundraising, mentorship from a panel of business and social philanthropy experts, executive coaching and pro bono financial modeling. At least two of the mentors have Brooklyn ties: Lizbeth Shepherd of Green City Force and Angie Kamath of Per Scholas, both of whose organizations are located in the Pfizer building, near the border of Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy.

Propel's team, led by CEO Jimmy Chen (in gray shirt).

Propel’s team, led by CEO Jimmy Chen (in gray shirt). (Courtesy photo)

Propel CEO Jimmy Chen first learned of the Future Cities Accelerator through Blue Ridge Labs, the civic tech incubator where the company got its start. The company will put the grant toward hiring, especially for technical positions, he told Technical.ly. (In fact, Chen let us know that Propel is looking for a full-stack software engineer right now. Get in touch through the company’s website if you’re interested.)


But Chen said he is also looking forward to the networking and mentorship opportunities offered through the program.

“We applied because the values expressed by the program seemed to be a really great fit for what we’re trying to achieve at Propel,” he said.

Though the program’s moniker makes it sound a lot like the “smart cities” programs that have laid down roots in Brooklyn, the Future Cities Accelerator has a narrower scope. It’s specifically focused on serving “poor and vulnerable populations in U.S. cities,” according to its website. Because it provides funding in the form of grants, the participating startups do not have to give up equity. Another distinction: the accelerator is largely virtual, aside from a five-day bootcamp at the Unreasonable Institute’s headquarters in Denver and a trip to the SOCAP conference in San Francisco, which focuses on social enterprise.

Many of Propel’s fellow participants in the accelerator also have a strong tech focus.

Just one borough over is the Coalition for Queens, a nonprofit aimed at boosting the local tech scene that offers training in software development. At least two other companies in the program also address food insecurity. Spoiler Alert, based in Boston, runs an online platform that allows food business to track surplus inventory — in other words, food that would otherwise go to waste — in order to facilitate donations to nonprofits. Chicago-based mRelief, like Propel, is also focused on SNAP, though from a different angle: enabling people to see if they qualify for it and other assistance programs through a text-messaging platform.

Chen said he sees his peers’ overlapping focus as a plus, rather than as competition.

“That multiple similar companies were chosen speaks to the interest in finding solutions in this area,” he said. “It’s an area that’s been underinvested in.”

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