The Civic Innovation Lab in Cleveland, Ohio, advocates “community entrepreneurship” and innovation. It provides mentorship and funding of up to $30,000 for civic, social and business startups that help revitalize Northeast Ohio’s economy. Founded in 2003, it has awarded 55 grants to date and enjoyed a $9.4 million positive economic impact on the region in 2008. Jennifer Thomas is director of the Lab, with assistance from Andradia Scovil, program coordinator.
The next application deadline is Friday, April 30. While time expires to apply for funding this session, aim for the next round in the fall. The Lab hosts an event called “Meet the Champions Breakfast.” Here they introduce their latest awardees for funding. The one-and-a-half-hour-long session enables potential applicants to learn directly from successful entrants. Thomas joins the presentation and provides insight on why the Lab chose the featured project for funding. It’s an energizing experience among fellow Clevelanders who support innovation. The complementary gathering occurs at Trinity Commons in downtown Cleveland. (The next “Meet the Champions Breakfast” takes place on May 20 – find more details at www.CivicInnovationLab.org.)
The latest Champions Breakfast was on April 21. The Lab honored Chris Clark, president and founder of Sunflower Solutions (www.TheSunflowerSolutions.com), a renewable energy company. Clark, 26, and his team of young entrepreneurs aim to provide developing nations with the lowest-cost source of electricity. The group designs manually adjusted solar tracking arrays, which are installed in areas outside of the electrical grid. The systems result in cheaper, dependable, life-changing electricity with 40-percent more power than solar panels on roofs or a pole. Sunflower Solutions’ customers are any nonprofits that service some of the poorest people in the world. The end user is an individual in an area that previously had little or no electricity.
Thomas complimented Clark and his associates at the breakfast for being well-prepared and networked before seeking Lab funding. She emphasized the Lab’s attraction to Sunflower Solutions’ low-tech, low-cost business model. Another winner is the company’s name. Thomas says she can easily describe the company’s patent-pending three-point solar tracking system that uses colors and numbers to investors.
“It looks like a sunflower, constantly turning its face toward the sun,” says Thomas of the system.
Clark says the best thing about working with the Civic Innovation Lab was how easy they made the application process.
“The quality of people who are part of the Lab make it effective, ” Clark says. “We wouldn’t be here without their funding and mentorship.”
Clark’s alliance with the Lab now positions him to market his solar design. He seeks individuals and organizations with ties to international aid and developing regions.
Mentoring is a key component of collaborating with the Lab, which features a select group of experienced individuals. They include entrepreneurs, innovators and civic leaders. Each mentor agrees to a three-year commitment and works directly with an awardee for one year.
“We are at a crossroad in time in Cleveland,” says Joy Roller, executive director of the Gordon Square Arts District and Lab mentor. “We have a tremendous history of industry and innovation, and a future bright with possibility for creating new sustainable technologies and ideas that can transform the economy of the region. I want to help be a part of that transformation.”
The Lab offers two complementary classes to help applicants receive funding. The first is the one-hour Application Prep Workshop. Here you learn how to write a clear and concise application. It features the ultimate role reversal question: “If your neighbor asked you to invest $30,000 in his/her new innovative civic idea, what would you want for your money?”
The second, interactive, three-hour session entitled “Communicating Your Idea” helps hone applicants’ elevator pitch and other verbal communication strategies.
Thomas rallies individuals who are confident that they have a viable business idea to pursue possible collaboration with the Civic Innovation Lab.
“You get invaluable information on how to advance your idea to a business model,” Thomas says. “If you get funded, you could be awarded $30,000, and the mentorship you receive is priceless in helping you start your company.”