We announced PRX’s partnership with the Knight Foundation to create the Public Media Accelerator about a month ago. Since then, it’s become clear that the accelerator concept is new to many people in the non-profit and public media worlds, even as tech folks fret that accelerators have jumped the shark.

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Our tagline for the Public Media Accelerator is “seeking mission-driven entrepreneurs changing media for good.” We’re in a time of remarkable technology innovation, and our goal is to channel the forces driving that growth towards public service media.

The two forces, the tech sector and public media, need each other: The tech sector will gain from public media’s high-quality content, commitment to community, and public service mission; and public media will gain from technology’s network efficiencies, professional and social connections, and radical new distribution paths.

As we spend the early weeks of this venture fleshing out our thinking and surveying the landscape, I thought I’d share both a snapshot of the accelerator scene and some of the issues triggering discussion at the Public Media Accelerator.

What’s an accelerator?

Accelerators are organizations focused on early stage investment in technology startups, providing a mix of financing, mentorship and other support to help launch new companies with the potential for explosive growth.

Most accelerators boil down to a few essentials:

  1. Funding — Typically for-profit accelerators provide $20k-$50k and take approximately 5% in equity.
  2. Founding teams — The participants are small teams, often 2-3 people, who are proto-founders of a company organized around a product/service vision.
  3. Program and process — The accelerator creates a structure and curriculum, typically offered in an intensive residential 2-3 month sprint.
  4. Networking and expertise — There’s enormous value in the accelerator’s ability to match teams with experienced mentors, advisers and investors who assist the teams on design, product, marketing, business development, and more.
  5. Space and logistical support — Often there is co-working space and light infrastructure support for the teams during the in-person sessions.
  6. Demo day — The process culminates in a showcase of the team’s products at a “demo day” for investors and press.

Accelerators are popping up all over. TechStars, one of the leaders in the field, has even franchised the model to support new accelerators around the world. Xconomy tracks 64 of them in its latest annual report. Budding entrepreneurs, faced with so many options, can use the “Unified Seed Accelerator Application“ form to apply to numerous accelerators in one fell swoop.

A growing trend that includes the Public Media Accelerator is “vertical” accelerators that focus on a particular industry, platform or other niche. Examples include Rockhealth, which targets startups in health care and FinTech for financial tech. There are a growing number with social missions, including one of my favorites, the Unreasonable Institute. And just last week Code for America announced a forthcoming accelerator targeting “civic startups.”

accelerators shifting into high gear

With so many groups with money and advice to give, are there enough takers? The answer is yes — plenty, in fact — although there is growing competition for the best teams and ideas. The fact is that today the costs of creating a startup are much lower by virtue of cloud computing and other tech efficiencies; the growth of Internet and mobile access has created a global market and means of distribution; entrepreneurial culture has taken root among enterprising developers; the high-profile successes of Internet startups and Y Combinator/TechStars alumni have inspired follow-on models.

The most obvious and meaningful benchmark of success is the number of companies in the accelerator’s portfolio that secure follow-on financing, and, further downstream, a successful “exit” in an acquisition, IPO or profitability.

While the ingredients for what goes into an accelerator can be broken out and reassembled, the special sauce is the unique mix of the accelerator management team’s judgment, talent, relationships, experience, and pure luck of the draw in shepherding companies through to further funding, growth and profit.

It’s clear that public media needs its own accelerator — attuned to the needs and assets of the industry and connected to the talent and energy in the broader technology and media world.

The PRX Knight team has our own special sauce, but our measure of success is not profits and exits per se — it’s furthering the values and impact of public service media, with sustainability and revenue being critical to create a lasting effect. We decided early on that the Public Media Accelerator would look for both for-profit and non-profit opportunities (something Knight Foundation has started to explore recently through its Enterprise Fund).

There are a number of for-profit organizations in public media — production companies, service providers, subsidiaries, etc. But the vast majority of the system — local stations, distributors, and national networks including PRX itself — are non-profits. And many of the sources of revenue are contingent upon non-profit status — CPB grants, foundation and government funding, individual donations, FCC-regulated broadcast sponsorship. To my knowledge, there are no venture-backed companies focused on public media, in part because a traditional definition of the market is too small to target.

finding the right mix of for-profit and non-profit

So why would the Public Media Accelerator be open to for-profit investments? Would the same ingredients hold together in a purely non-profit context? How do we harness the for-profit energy that attracts top talent and aligns incentives in the standard accelerator model, while advancing the mission-driven principles at the core of the venture?

First, while we will not restrict the accelerator to one funding path, we recognize that for-profits and non-profits require different structures and approaches to be effective. In some cases we will help pioneer new hybrid models that straddle both.

Second, we want to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the grant-driven, project-based funding that has been the means of innovation funding in the industry to date. These efforts tend to be incremental, short-lived, and at best result in “sustaining” rather than “disruptive” innovation (using Clayton Christensen’s well-known construct). It’s not hard to see why disruptive innovations tend to come from outside successful organizations and industries rather than from within. The Public Media Accelerator has the opportunity to change this dynamic: Knight and PRX have significant standing and relationships in public media, but are also accomplished risk-takers without the legacies and limits of many public media institutions.

Third, we see the accelerator model as a way to attract new talent into the field. While we anticipate working with a number of the current forward-leaning teams within the industry, our opportunity is to expand the pool, and inspire and enable a new cadre of public media entrepreneurs (also address the developer gap I blogged about here recently). We take our own inspiration from Mozilla, Wikipedia, Code for America, and the growing number of mission-driven technology efforts that aspire to and achieve success on an Internet scale. Technologists and entrepreneurs want to make meaningful things, and public media should embrace them.

What are we looking for?

We’ve said two areas of interest are mobile and monetization, but we are also intentionally leaving a wide open door for ideas that break the mold. Our evolving list of criteria includes:

Mission-driven: The ideas should encompass public media’s mission and values as an impact goal, not merely a side effect.

Disruptive: We’re excited about ideas that change the game through some systemic or business model insight, more so than smart improvements to the way things already work.

Scalable/replicable: Ideas should have the potential to scale to significant impact and business sustainability or be replicable by others.

The Public Media Accelerator is not a content fund, but we’ll seek to connect content in ways that deepen its value and impact and address the business model of its production and distribution.

We still have a number of open questions as we get underway, but rather than attempt to answer them all, we’re taking our own advice and launching the Public Media Accelerator as a lean startup of its own — building as we go, trusting in a talented team, being ready to pivot, actively networking and learning from advisers and mentors, and relentlessly focused on the mission of transforming public media. (We are still accepting applications for the director position, a terrific opportunity to help lead the media revolution.)

Follow us on Twitter (@publicmediax and on the Public Media Accelerator site.

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