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Public Media Gets Its Own Accelerator, Led By Corey Ford From Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors

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Public broadcasters are the latest group to get in on funding promising tech startups in their earliest stages: today sees the launch of the Public Media Accelerator, an incubator that’s looking for startups focused on innovation in public media, with $2.5 million in funding from the Public Radio Exchange and the Knight Foundation.

To kick things off, the group picked a key person to help: its new director is Corey Ford (pictured), who will be leaving his role leading Runway, the incubator division of Eric Schmidt’s early investment group, Innovation Ventures.

And in a sense, this is a return to public media roots for Ford: one of his past roles before joining Schmidt’s outfit was as a producer for the PBS show Frontline.

Jake Shapiro, the executive director of the Public Radio Exchange, tells TechCrunch that Ford is already doing the rounds with him this week at SXSW, but he will formally be starting in his role in April. It is not clear who will be replacing him at the Runway project that he was heading up, but Ford is ensuring a “smooth transition.”

Shapiro says that the new fund will typically be awarding seed grants with the amounts ranging along the lines of those at other accelerators — so with funds in the region of $20,000-$50,000, with mentoring included. The new fund models itself, it says, on other public service early-stage investment efforts like Code for America for government startups and RockHealth for health care startups.

The first recipients are to be announced this summer, with funding decisions led by Ford, with probable input also from the Public Radio Exchange and the Knight Foundation. He says the Public Media Accelerator itself will be run “like a lean startup.”

So what are they looking for? Although the Public Radio Exchange is one of the chief backers, Shapiro says that this doesn’t mean that the innovation has to be focused on that field, or even broadcast more generally: it’s much more about startups that are doing things that might lend themselves to the kinds of services that public media organizations are investing in already.

“It’s focused around public service media and the idea of mission-driven output,” he says, although he also acknowledges that “users don’t really make a distinction between public media and private media content,” so in effect that could mean the funding is open to anyone with a good new media idea.

The public media sector in the U.S. is regularly under the threat of budget cuts — some times more than others — and that is probably one of the main fires driving the creation of this fund — for more potential self-sufficiency.

But on the other hand public media has actually been pretty good at trying to keep up with the times, whether that has been in the form of launching apps to access radio services or exploring ways of watching PBS content digitally. This latest project hopes to take that to a new level.

This may be the first time that the Public Radio Exchange has waded into the world of startup funding, but the Knight Foundation has been launching other investment programs, too. At the end of February, it launched the first stage of its News Challenge project — offering startups investments from a $5 million pot for good ideas that innovate on the idea news. They’re leaving it intentionally vague as to what that could mean and are asking for people to apply via a Tumblr page.