Amplify Philly, the official local presence at Austin’s massive annual music festival/tech convention/cultural hub South by Southwest, has gone nonprofit and is planning another splashy showing for its next visit this March.
The push to formalize an otherwise extremely grassroots effort from a group of passionate Philadelphians came over the past year as their initiative marks half a decade of action at SXSW. The continuing mission: attract the best talent, clients and consumers here by way of programming and community engagement, according to lead organizer and REC Philly cofounder Dave Silver.
“There’s an opportunity to highlight the city where people are listening,” Silver said. “They want to know what’s next, what’s leading, what they’re missing out on,” and it’s “required” that Philadelphia get some shine.
Philly’s first organized descent upon the Texas fest came in 2016, when just a few local startups took up one bit of a row on the trade show floor, and DJ Jazzy Jeff fronted a concert. That inaugural effort raised $91,000 from local sponsors like Independence Blue Cross, the City of Philadelphia, Comcast and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The next year drew more investment from the likes of Comcast, Guru and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. It also featured double the original number of startups and a visit from Mayor Jim Kenney.
2018 saw the launch of the “house” — the two-day, two-night transformation of a downtown Austin bar into a Philly haven with La Colombe, Tony Luke’s and screenings of Super Bowl LII, along with more concerts and programming like panels featuring mostly local folks. (That’s also the year events management company Witty Gritty, led by Michelle Freeman, came aboard to help.)
2019 expanded the Amplify Philly House to three days and three nights, with a reported 3,500 visitors to the rebranding of the Pour Choices bar on Austin’s Sixth Street.
As the org heads to Austin in a few weeks for its fifth year, Philly’s presence is shaping up to be strong as ever. Amplify will host “close to 50 hours of Philadelphia-centric programming” March 15 through 17, it announced this week. Visitors can expect to see panels like “Automation City: Where Robots Hit the Road,” a higher-ed focused “Philly Alumni” happy hour and talks discussing equity in the music and cannabis industries.
“We want speakers, partners and attendees to feel at home in the Amplify Philly House, as it is an extension of how we want people to feel when they visit and do business in Philadelphia,” Freeman said in a statement.
In addition to programming, Pour Choices visitors can expect a Rival Bros. Coffee bar and Cambridge Innovation Center-sponsored coworking space.
To Silver, bringing Philly’s presence to the Texas city is a milestone in itself, and one he said Amplify is excited to accomplish as its own entity.
For the past four years, the effort was operating under fiscal sponsor Philly Startup Leaders (PSL) because of PSL’s own nonprofit status. (Silver’s original organizing partner was Yuval Yarden, the former program manager and then short-lived, first-ever executive director of PSL.) But that meant the PSL team spent its Amplify time managing a budget and bank account, rather than devoting its full efforts to connecting startups. Instead, Silver said, “let’s let PSL do what they do best and remove the financial work from them.”
Accordingly, “this year, we are focused solely on getting Philly founders to Austin for the connections and exposure SXSW offers,” PSL Director Kiera Smalls said in an email. “Awarding grants to the six startups led by founders from underrepresented backgrounds is part of our new focus.”
Those six startup founders heading to Austin are Jessie Garcia of Tozuda, Jason Coles of Katika, Hang Nguyen of Leadovate, Shanel Fields of MD Ally, Erin Houston of wearwell and Munir Pathak of Swirl. Funding for their travel came from sponsors Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs and Ballard Spahr.
Paperwork for Amplify to become a 501(c)(3) was filed over the summer and approved in the fall, Silver said. The transition made sense because the initiative “was never made to be a business,” he said, or to make anyone a bunch of money — it was simply built to showcase the best of Philly on an international stage.
Still, it’s not actually simple, and indeed takes a ton of money to produce — maybe $400,000 to $500,000 for 2020, the organizer estimated over the summer. That funding comes largely from corporate and business entities interested in getting their brands associated with innovation.
This year’s sponsors include the likes of returning bigwigs Comcast, CHOP and the City of Philadelphia (read about the Philadelphia Global Identity Partnership’s branding efforts in the Philly Biz Journal); universities such as Community College of Philadelphia, Drexel University, Temple University Alumni Association, Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) and Villanova University; and tech companies such as Guru, Arcweb, Chariot Solutions and Zivtech. (Contrast that with D.C., where the Washington DC Economic Partnership spearheads its WeDC house.)
After SXSW 2020, the Amplify team also wants to expand programming to year round — maybe activations at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in NYC or the traveling BIO conference, for instance. For his part, Silver isn’t planning on being a staffer of the nonprofit, but instead to grow and eventually hire an ED, as PSL did.
For Silver in particular, this work stems from “a deep love of Philadelphia.”
“It’s helped shape me and who I am, and I always want to find ways to spotlight the city, give back,” he said. “But obviously, I have a passion for connecting our arts and culture with our business community.” He sees Amplify as one big way to make that happen.
To celebrate Amplify’s move to nonprofit status and to gather folks before heading to SXSW, REC Philly is hosting a send-off party at its HQ Thursday, Feb. 20.
Amplify is also tracking how many local startups are attending the fest. Fill out this form to let them know your company will be there.
— Amplify Philly (@AmplifyPhilly) February 20, 2020