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Crowdfunding Festival Mixes Face-to-Face Events With Start-Up Culture

One Spark is preparing to take over 20 blocks of downtown Jacksonville, Florida, with five days of entertainment, food, V.I.P. events, speakers, and start-ups looking for funding.

Participants are matched with a venue, which can vary from an office building to a public park. Some bring traditional, trade-show-style booths while others showcase their creativity: last year a musical act crocheted walls and a roof around a stage.

Photo: Courtesy of One Spark

One Spark, a crowdfunding festival that will fill the streets and buildings of downtown Jacksonville, Florida, Wednesday through Sunday, is based on the idea that face-to-face connections are critical to the success of start-up projects. More than 630 entrepreneurs will pitch their ideas in the categories of art, music, innovation, science, and technology at 77 venues throughout 20 square blocks. In addition to feedback from the more than 130,000 people expected to attend the free event, the participants will be vying for $310,000 distributed based on popular vote.  

“One Spark is built on the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere,” says Joe Sampson, the event’s executive director. “While the entire start-up world seems to be going in the direction of online and moving away from the business of people, this cuts right through all of that digital noise. It gives creators the opportunity to not just connect with the funding they need but to truly engage their potential market and get real-time market feedback and validation for their idea.”

The concept of connections drives the structure of the event, starting with the way the creators are matched with venues. Organizers have no say in the matter. Venues—which vary from coffee shops and office buildings to city parks—pay a $150 fee and provide information about the type of space they can offer. Those with projects to pitch pay $45 and provide a description of the type of space they need. An online system matches the two, and then it’s up to the venues and individuals to create a hosting agreement.

“If you are a creator you are showcasing for five full days. It could be in a 10- by 10-[foot] space in the ground floor of a high rise, or you may have landed a public park that you’ve completely taken over and you are showcasing it in a really big way,” Sampson says.

At the festival, attendees cast votes for their favorite projects at kiosks or through the event app; the festival provides free Wi-Fi throughout the 20-block footprint. On the last day, $200,000 is distributed to creators in proportion to their percentage of total votes cast. An additional $10,000 goes to the top vote getters in each category and to the favorites selected by a team of judges. Individuals from anywhere in the world can also donate money online to specific projects, and the one that receives the most funding gets an extra $10,000.

“The whole idea is [to] empower the crowd, to bypass the traditional funding paths that early stage companies have to go down, and let the market decide which idea they want to come to life,” Sampson says. In addition to the $310,000 that Sampson has amassed from sponsors, vendors, private donors, and entry fees, he has also lined up venture capitalists who have pledged a total of $3.25 million to invest in projects that they select.

The funding opportunity is just one component of the event. Attendees can also dine on food from local restaurants and food trucks at a two-block “food village,” sample beer from a Jacksonville brewer, watch a variety of entertainment, and attend opening and closing ceremonies. Ticketed events include sponsor-hosted V.I.P. dinners and receptions and a speaker series with executives from Starbucks, TechCrunch, and GE Capital, among others.

Last year was the inaugural One Spark festival, pulled together in about seven weeks with a “go big and disrupt this whole city mindset,” according to Sampson. He said the event’s design was based on elements from TED and TEDx events, South by Southwest, and ArtPrize, a festival in Michigan. For this year, Sampson and his seven-person staff have been working on the event for the past nine months. When the festival ends on Sunday, they will turn their attention to their first international event, One Spark Berlin, which will take place in September. “We have interest from a lot of outside markets that want us to bring it there,“ Sampson says. “Shame on us if we can’t find a way to make One Spark a global brand in the next three to four years.”