One Spark Chair Says Organization At ‘Turning Point’ With Venture Support For Startups

By Drew Dixon
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville.

The days of One Spark serving solely as an annual crowdfunding festival are apparently coming to an end.

“I think we’re at a turning point,” Board Chairman Peter Rummell said at a Tuesday luncheon at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. “I think things are about to get really interesting.”

Rummell spoke to some 80 local business leaders invited to hear about the creation of One Spark Ventures, which he said will focus on providing networks and investor support for local entrepreneurs and startup businesses.

The announcement of One Spark Ventures came barely 24 hours after One Spark co-founder and CEO Elton Rivas resigned from the organization at the request of the board. That touched off a series of resignations that included two other staff members and board member Rena Coughlin.

Rummell remained unfazed by those developments Tuesday. He didn’t mention the resignations in his remarks to the crowd, though he did discuss them briefly with reporters afterward.

Rummell acknowledged that the One Spark festivals held since 2013 were exciting and helped develop Jacksonville’s reputation as a community that fosters startup businesses and entrepreneurs. But he also said it’s time to look well beyond a party in April.

Rummell contributed $3.5 million of the $6.1 million needed to operate the festival for the first three years, according to financial information released by One Spark. Rummell’s money included $3 million in charitable donations and $500,000 in loans, equating to more than 58 percent of the funding.

“That was yesterday. What we’re here to work on is tomorrow,” Rummell said. “2016 can’t be like 2015. And 2015 can’t be like 2014. We lost a lot of money in 2015 and we lost a lot of money in 2014. And we can’t keep doing that.

“As we reach out in the Ventures arm and we go from a one-week festival to a year-round event, … I think that’s going to breed a different set of products and a different environment,” Rummell said.

During an impromptu news conference, Rummell clarified that this year’s festival scheduled for April 7-9 in a 10-square-block area of downtown is no longer a certainty. The creator registration deadline is Jan. 29.

“[Dates] are fixed until they’re not,” he said. “We’re looking at everything. We’re trying to figure out what makes most sense for this April and for next April. I don’t know the answer.”

One Spark officials declined to release the specific creator registration count as of Tuesday, but said they are on target to reach the goal of having 300 creator projects at this year’s scheduled festival.

In Tuesday’s audience of business leaders were corporate officers, bankers, investors and entrepreneurs. Rummell’s presentation was coupled with a slick video that promised “One Spark is validation to what your dreams are.”

Dharmesh Dubey, who owns a private investment firm, said he was impressed with Rummell’s vision for One Spark Ventures.

“I like Peter’s comments and the leadership team around him. He’s trying to put in a new focus. I call it trying to put the money behind the creation. Sometimes you do need that oxygen to get started. After that, you can figure out survival,” Dubey said.

“It’s good to see something like this happening here. I’ve been part of similar scenes in Boston, Silicon Valley, and in New York. … I saw a lot of good things there, but I never saw it here until today,” Dubey said.

Also at Tuesday’s luncheon was Jacksonville Downtown Investment Authority CEO Aundra Wallace, who oversees development in the city’s core. The DIA has contributed $115,000 to the One Spark festival, which in 2015 alone drew an estimated 320,000 people downtown.

Wallace said he sees One Spark as a positive for Jacksonville in whatever form it takes.

“In terms of my concern, I have none,” Wallace said of the future of One Spark. “I’ve been around in the industry long enough to know that where there’s a start there will always be a transition to move to the next level.

“Today what they talked about was moving One Spark to that next level itself. That means good things for us,” Wallace said.

Even if the festival is scrapped, One Spark Ventures will bring economic benefits to downtown, Wallace said.

“The bottom line and issue is, as much as we enjoy the festival, the part that we most enjoy about One Spark is the creators and inventors being able to get funded, being able to be recognized, and finding their way into being much more productive businesses,” Wallace said.

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