Rewarding civic pride and boosting the local economy? Akron, Ohio is trying out a startup for that

Akron, Ohio, the hometown of LeBron James and the seat of the US tire industry; the one hundred and twenty seventh largest city in the US; and the home of America’s first toy company is now the latest site of a global experiment in whether cities can use behavioral economics to help foster good citizenship.

Thanks to the work of the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, James Hardy, Akron is the first city to roll out services from an Israeli-based company called Colu. A startup backed by just over $20 million in financing from American and Israeli investors, the company has developed an app-based rewards service that cities can roll out to provide perks to users.

In Akron’s case, the initiative rewards points for shopping at local businesses that can be redeemed for discounts at those stores. The initial effort, which includes a platform for businesses to market directly to the app’s users, focuses on businesses owned by women and minorities (a response to the movement for racial justice that has sprung up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis).

Akron is the first city of what Colu founder Amos Meiri expects to be a nationwide rollout throughout the US. The company already has managed to ink another agreement with the city of Chula Vista, Calif.

Colu, which has raised its capital from investors associated with blockchain technologies like Barry Silbert’s Digital Currency Group; the Boston-based venture capital firm, Spark Capital; New York’s Box Group and the Israeli corporate conglomerate, IDB Group, has deep ties to the cryptocurrency world of alternative financial instruments through Meiri.

One of the original architects of the Ethereum protocol, Meiri’s work with Colu is in some ways an extension of that effort to create new kinds of economies powered by alternative financial mechanisms.

Meiri said cities typically pay for Colu out of their marketing budgets as a new way to communicate and attempt to influence civic behavior.

For Akron’s government officials, the company’s services are a way to boost locally owned businesses that have been hit hard by the state’s attempts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our locally owned small businesses are facing enormous challenges and we need out-of-the-box ideas that safely connect them to consumers and turn local spending into a source of pride for residents,” said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, in a statement. “Our partnership with Colu will enable the city to reward customers for shopping local, improving revenues for our small businesses while helping folks stretch their dollars.”

Earlier work with the municipal government in Tel Aviv promoted sustainable business practice and encouraged businesses to do more to manage their waste and carbon footprint by introducing a “green label”. Businesses that followed the city’s guidelines were given the label and shoppers were encouraged to frequent those merchants.

Colu envisions itself as more than just a marketing and rewards platform for businesses. The company hopes it can draw users into a kind of social networking platform for civic engagement where users can share their own stories about city-life and their interactions with local business owners and the community.

In some ways, it’s a kinder, gentler version of China’s social credit scoring system, which is also designed to influence civic behavior. In this formulation, there’s a rewards system, but no mechanisms to punish citizens for bad behavior.

“Akron has a long history of innovation within our economy — this initiative draws on that legacy,” said Deputy Mayor Hardy, in a statement. “By putting the future of Akron’s locally owned small businesses in the palm of our citizens’ hands, we hope to make it easy for consumers to keep their money local and continue to strengthen our incredible community.”

Jane VC, a new fund for female entrepreneurs, wants founders to cold email them

Want to pitch a venture capitalist? You’ll need a “warm introduction” first. At least that’s what most in the business will advise.

Find a person, typically a man, who made the VC you’re interested in pitching a whole bunch of money at some point and have them introduce you. Why? Because VCs love people who’ve made them money; naturally, they’ll be willing to hear you out if you’ve got at least one money maker on your side.

There’s a big problem with that cycle. Not all entrepreneurs are friendly with millionaires and not all entrepreneurs, especially those based outside Silicon Valley or from underrepresented backgrounds, have anyone in their network to provide them that coveted intro.

Jane VC, a new venture fund based out of Cleveland and London wants entrepreneurs to cold email them. Send them your pitch, no wealthy or successful intermediary necessary. The fund, which has so far raised $2 million to invest between $25,000 and $150,000 in early-stage female-founded companies across industries, is scrapping the opaque, inaccessible model of VC that’s been less than favorable toward women.

“We like to say that Jane VC is venture for every woman,” the firm’s co-founder Jennifer Neundorfer told TechCrunch.

Neundorfer, who previously co-founded and led an accelerator for Midwest startups called Flashstarts after stints at 21st Century Fox and YouTube, partnered with her former Stanford business school classmate Maren Bannon, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of LittleLane. So far, they’ve backed insurtech company Proformex and Hatch Apps, an enterprise software startup that makes it easier for companies to create and distribute mobile and web apps.

“We are going to shoot them straight”

Jane VC, like many members of the next generation of venture capital funds, is bucking the idea that the best founders can only be found in Silicon Valley. Instead, the firm is going global and operating under the philosophy that a system of radical transparency and honesty will pay off.

“Let’s be efficient with an entrepreneur’s time and say no if it’s not a hit,” Neundorfer said. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that coaching. So many entrepreneurs think a VC is interested and they aren’t. An entrepreneur’s time is so valuable and we want to protect that. We are going to shoot them straight.”

Though Jane VC plans to invest across the globe, the firm isn’t turning its back on Bay Area founders. Neundorfer and Bannon will leverage their Silicon Valley network and work with an investment committee of nine women based throughout the U.S. to source deals. 

“We are women that have raised money and have been through the ups and downs of raising money in what is a very male-dominated world,” Neundorfer added. “We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but that you can make a lot of money doing it.”

Cleveland offered $120 million in freebies lure Amazon to the city

A Cleveland.com article detailed the lengths the small midwestern city would go to lure Amazon’s in 50,000-person HQ2. In a document obtained by reporter Mark Naymik, we learn that Cleveland was ready to give over $120 million in free services to Amazon including considerably reduced fares on Cleveland-area trains and buses.

The document, available here, focuses on the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA)’s ideas regarding the key component in many of Amazon’s decisions – transportation.

Ohio has a budding but often tendentious connection to public transport. Cities like Columbus have no light rail while Cincinnati just installed a rudimentary system. Cleveland, for its part, has a solid if underused system already in place.

That the city would offer discounts is not surprising. Cities were falling over themselves to gain what many would consider – including Amazon itself – a costly incursion on the city chosen. However, given the perceived importance of having Amazon land in a small city – including growth of the startup and tech ecosystems – you can see why Cleveland would want to give away plenty of goodies.

Ultimately the American Midwest is at a crossroads. It could go either way, with small cities growing into vibrant artistic and creative hubs or those same cities falling into further decline. And the odds are stacked against them.

The biggest city, Chicago, is a transport, finance, and logistics hub and draws talent from smaller cities that orbit it. Further, “smart” cities like Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor steal the brightest students who go on to the coasts after graduation. As Richard Florida noted, the cities with a vibrant Creative Class are often the ones that succeed in this often rigged race and many cities just can’t generate any sort of creative ecosystem – cultural or otherwise – that could support a behemoth like Amazon landing in its midst.

What Cleveland did wasn’t wrong. However, it did work hard to keep the information secret, a consideration that could be dangerous. After all, as Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told reporters: “Our statement for HQ2 is we’ll provide whatever is necessary to Amazon when they need it. For all practical purposes, it’s a blank check.”