Local entrepreneurs plan to transform the century-old Snyder Memorial Church in Jacksonville, Florida, into a performance venue, a technology training center, and a recording studio. As part of this year’s One Spark crowd-funding festival, the church hosted more than 16 performances, earning it the Best Project Award in the innovation category. The church’s revitalization was among more than 600 projects on display for an estimated 260,000 visitors at the festival, held in April.
Those attending One Spark had a variety of ways to support their favorite projects. They could give money directly via the One Spark website or mobile app. They also could vote for their favorites in five categories: art, innovation, music, science, and technology. Winning projects each received a $10,000 check, plus a guaranteed entry in and plane ticket to the inaugural One Spark Berlin festival in September. Another set of five checks went to the best projects in each category as chosen by a jury, with a final prize for the project that raised the most contributions overall.
“One Spark is a very, very good place for people to launch their ideas,” said cofounder Elton Rivas.
The festival gives project sponsors a chance to present their idea to a huge audience, gauge the response of potential users, and catch the interest of possible investors or larger contributors. The internet can be a powerful tool, but often in-person interactions with consumers can be even more powerful. “The entire crowd-funding community is moving towards online and virtual experiences. One Spark cuts through all of that digital noise,” said One Spark executive director Joe Sampson.
One Spark organizers secured pledges from seven venture capital firms to invest up to $3.25 million at One Spark this year. Representatives from those seven firms roved the event, visiting projects. “One of the toughest things for equity firms is deal flow. They are looking for solid deals. One Spark is an excellent place to find them,” said Sampson.
The 11 cash prizes handed out at One Spark also brought attention and funding to innovators. Artist Shaun Thurston (above) will use his $10,000 prize to support fellow artists and continue his own work covering large buildings in Jacksonville with giant murals, including one for the atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. Reggae-rock group Sidereal will use its winnings to record its next album and to tour. Neuroinitiative Inc. won $10,000 to use computer simulation and modeling to research brain diseases, promising to “create biotech jobs in Jacksonville.” The $10,000 prize for the project with the most votes overall went to Spirit Dining, a project to create a restaurant discount card that generates charitable contributions.
People can also make a direct contribution to support projects they like. The gifts are often small, but they can boost an idea that is just getting started. The top projects at One Spark raised just a few thousand dollars apiece in contributions through One Spark’s website and mobile app. For example, the church renovation raised $3,772.65—enough to reimburse the project sponsors for temporary repairs they made to the vacant, city-owned church and hire a few off-duty firemen to care for the building during the five-day festival.
“There were people in and out of that property who had the personal resources to do much more,” said Ian Stake, president of project sponsor Amplify. He now hopes to raise $3 million to $5 million in contributions to transform the old church. That is much bolder than the plan Amplify had just a few weeks ago, which was to redevelop the church in phases.
The quarter million people who attended this year amount to twice as many as attended last year. “The sheer volume is what I was expecting for year three,” said Sampson.
The festival is already planning to expand to a new location. For three days, September 12–14, One Spark will hold its first event outside Jacksonville on the other side of the world, in Berlin, a quickly growing creative center and home to many startup companies. Holding One Spark in a major European capital should help raise its profile.
Last year, more than 80 percent of the people attending One Spark were from the Jacksonville area. “This year, a notable percentage of people came from places like Miami, Tampa, or Chicago,” said Rivas. Local hotels were booked solid, raising room rates 46 percent above normal.
Downtown Jacksonville is still the heart of One Spark. The festival’s three founders built the event partly to create jobs for themselves in their home city. For the five days of One Spark, innovators set up booths in city parks, rented space, and used performance spaces throughout downtown to show off their projects.
The festival is leaving its mark on the city—from giant murals and tech startups to new coffee shops and performance venues. That was part of the plan: Rivas and his cofounders intended to create infrastructure to nurture innovation in their home city, including pathways that connect innovators with private markets.
“Jacksonville is a place where things can happen,” said Rivas.