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July 19, 2018

Since coming to Fort Wayne as a 6 year old, Steve Franks has watched his hometown thrive, lose ground, regain its edge and now become positioned to shine brighter than ever. As Program Manager for the Farnsworth Fund, Franks is far from just watching the evolution. He is an integral part of it.

Inspired by one of the 20th century’s most notable innovators, television inventor and long-time Fort Wayne resident Philo T. Farnsworth, and modeled on the successful micro-grant program of the Peter Thiel-backed 1517 Fund, elevate northeast indiana launched the Farnsworth Fund on May 3, 2018. The Fund is a vehicle to identify and support founders of companies from the very beginning. During its first year, it will make at least 50 “bets” ($1,000 micro-grants) on the people who will ultimately drive Northeast Indiana’s entrepreneurial culture.

Grantees are connected with each other, mentors and other business support. Those who aren’t quite ready receive an encouraging “not yet” and support to prepare for success. This focus on inclusiveness and community is designed to grow civic investment and engagement.

“As long as grant recipients are making our community a better place and contributing to this community building, we’re cool with that,” Franks says of Farnsworth Fund winners. Entrepreneurship is key to the program, but community building is at its heart.

Franks’ own personal mission, one that drew him to become program manager of the Fund, is to grow the Northeast Indiana economy from the ground up. The $1,000 small grants bet on new and student entrepreneurs to help spur such economic growth in a region that once relied on much more traditional industries and means of economic development.

In the late 50s and early 60s, downtown Fort Wayne was booming, with an economy well fed by manufacturing jobs. In the ensuing decades, those jobs dried up, as they did across the United States. Families left Fort Wayne and moved to nearby Leo-Cedarville, Ossian, Auburn and other burgeoning suburban areas. Commercial growth followed them. The city’s downtown went into a decline until renewed interest, ideas and effort started to turn it around. The Farnsworth Fund comes in the midst of an upswing in Fort Wayne.

“Today, downtown is thriving with lots of new office buildings and residences, and entertainment attractions being built. I can see this vision of having the downtown being like it was when I was a little kid. At the same time, our city is becoming more entrepreneurial because this sort of growth doesn’t happen by finding a new 500-person manufacturing facility. Instead, it’s smaller shops and big office buildings. There are so many cool things working in Fort Wayne. Just give us another 10 years and you’ll be shocked,” Franks says.

Before organizations like the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation started publishing research reports that job growth begins with startups, Franks said he was sure that was the case. Beginning at the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, he has spent the last 15 years working with hundreds of entrepreneurs.

In various capacities, he has coached or advised people from first-time founders hatching plans around a kitchen table to people raising a couple million dollars. He also operated a student entrepreneur meetup and student venture lab, and founded two regional venture accelerators and an arts-related cohort program. Franks cofounded one of the region’s first coworking spaces, where the people who later created Start Fort Waynemet.

“It’s a great sense of fulfillment to watch something be created from nothing,” he adds. One of Franks’ favorite stories to tell young entrepreneurs is about Fort Wayne resident Philo T. Farnsworth, the Fund’s namesake. Farnsworth had his initial idea for the TV invention at age 15 as a Utah farm boy. By 20, he had his own lab above a garage in San Francisco and was filing his first patent application. His bold, inventive impact on the world grew far beyond that first patent, as he was cited as inventor on over 300 patents.

“The power of being curious and not letting what hasn’t been done yet stop you has really caused us to honor Philo T. Farnsworth’s legacy,” Franks says. With so many more resources available today in Northeast Indiana to move creative, novel ideas forward, the region may be on the cusp of yet another exciting shift.

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