Innovation fellows to get $300K for RI projects
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—When the Rhode Island Foundation launched its Innovation Fellowship last year, it offered applicants a few guidelines: Think big. Take risks. And better Rhode Island.
The first two fellows were named Wednesday from an initial pool of more than 400 aspiring innovators. Each will receive $300,000 over three years to work on projects to rev up the state's idling economy.
Allan Tear, co-founder of Betaspring, an incubator program that helps high-tech entrepreneurs turn their ideas into companies, aims to create a "start-up revolution" in areas including art and design and food and beverage that he says are founts of largely untapped economic potential.
Soren Ryherd, whose Providence company Working Planet helps businesses maximize profit through online marketing, plans to launch dozens of retail stores online -- with the goal of eventually moving some into empty storefronts to help revitalize Main Streets and neighborhoods.
Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg chaired a seven-member committee that selected the winners. The panel included University of Rhode Island President David Dooley, Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda and the heads of several local start-ups.
The money for the fellowship comes from John and Letitia Carter, who approached the foundation last year knowing only that they wanted to support home-grown solutions to Rhode Island's problems. John Carter in 1963 started EFD Inc., an East Providence-based company that made industrial dispensing valves. He sold it in 2000.
The Carters plan to fund the fellowship program annually, at least for several years, said Steinberg.
The Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship is itself innovative: The funding comes with virtually no strings attached. And foundation officials are unusually upfront about one of the realities of innovation: There are no guarantees of success, and that's OK.
"Risk is built into being an entrepreneur," said Tear, who grew up in Chicago and West Virginia and moved to Providence 10 years ago because he admired its scrappy character and "odd soul."
"It's the cliff from which you leap," he said.
Applicants were asked to propose something -- anything -- that would improve life in Rhode Island. The foundation got 438 takers -- everyone from college students to retirees. The committee was looking for bold ideas, and ones that could be scaled to have the greatest impact across the state.
Tear, 41, who was invited to the White House last week for President Barack Obama's signing of legislation that supports start-ups, will focus on what he calls "underleveraged" segments of the economy. Besides the culinary and arts industries, he'll attempt to spur growth among social enterprises and advanced manufacturers.
Ryherd, 49, a Seattle native with a degree in urban planning, isn't sure yet what online businesses he'll launch as part of his so-called The Retail Project. Ideas he's considering: pet clothing, cooking equipment and food products for boats, and even possibly tire rims.
With the help of additional funding he will try to raise, Ryherd aims to launch six online stores this year, nine next and 27 the year after. The first actual storefront would open at the end of 2013.
"This just allowed me to dream big," said Ryherd of the fellowship. "This is a catalyst in every sense. It's easy to put ideas off."
The foundation planned an event in downtown Providence on Wednesday night to honor the two winners and to recognize five other finalists. One finalist proposed building plug-in stations to charge electric vehicles; another wanted to set up a pilot cooking program in conjunction with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to help low-income families make cheap healthy meals.
The foundation hopes some of the many other ideas will come to fruition, too, possibly through other grants.
"It was really an outpouring of individuals who didn't seem to have another outlet for their ideas," Steinberg said. "It was invigorating."