Thinking big: One Spark’s founders and staff visualized their dreams at UNF

One Spark

The One Spark crowdfunding festival has become synonymous with big ideas and even bigger dreams. The five-day celebration of pitches and proposals from innovators, artists and techies has stoked a fire of creativity in downtown Jacksonville for the past two years. The University of North Florida helped ignite those flames of innovation.

Two of One Spark’s three co-founders graduated from UNF, and all of them attended the University at one point. A core group of the nonprofit’s administrative staff are also UNF graduates. UNF’s DNA is truly threaded throughout One Spark’s very being.

Last year, One Spark offered $250,000 in crowdfunding dollars to creators, in addition to $1 million in equity investments from STACHE Investments Corp., an investment company formed by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan. This year, $310,000 in awards was up for grabs, and more than 20 new venues were added to the event schedule. Last year’s festival generated an estimated 130,000 visitors to downtown Jacksonville. Although this year’s attendance figures weren’t available by the publication deadline, One Spark staff said they expected the 2014 festival to easily eclipse the numbers from last year.

Igniting the Spark

Co-founders Dennis Eusebio, Elton Rivas and Varick Rosete all credit the University with instilling in them the skills and savvy to tackle One Spark crowdfunding festival, a massive creative and logistical product.

“UNF is a part of us,” Eusebio said. “We went there, we learned there and we're now working with UNF to grow One Spark in the community.”

Eusebio is a graphic designer who honed his talents at UNF. A Jacksonville native, he attended UNF from 2000 to 2002 to add some formal training to his portfolio of self-taught design skills. He said he met a number of people at UNF who helped push his skills to the next level and inspired him to think big.

"I learned the fundamentals of designing at UNF, and that helped me be able to explain and communicate my ideas in more of a formal business setting,” he said. “It gave me a more practical application for my skills, and it really helped me when we were putting together all of our ideas for One Spark."

Thinking big is nothing new for the One Spark team. Just look at KYN, the tech accelerator and apprenticeship program founded by One Spark last year as a partnership with STACHE Investments Corp. and the University. KYN’s goal is to jumpstart the work of four groups of hand-picked creators through an intensive 16-week accelerator program in which UNF computing student apprentices looking for valuable hands-on learning experiences offer up their design and development skills to the accelerator’s budding startups. This symbiotic relationship between student and industry allows the UNF apprentices to gain experience working with the latest technology and creating software applications while offering the KYN-selected startups a low-cost alternative to hiring pricey freelance workers.

“UNF has a built-in work force of bright, energetic young students eager to get out there and provide this kind of work,” said Elton Rivas, One Spark and KYN co-founder. “It’s simple — pair these students with some of our previous One Spark creators, provide them with the means to do great things and stand back and watch the process unfold.”

One of One Spark's newest hires, UNF graduate Brent Fine, joined the events teams earlier this year and immediately got to work. As event manager, Fine handled the logistics of the festival, scheduled artists and bands and coordinated the speaker series. It’s a lot like his previous position as director of Osprey Productions, UNF’s student-led events production group.

“I hit the ground running at One Spark because I had the experience from UNF,” Fine said. “I gained a ton of skills at OP dealing with different events, production schedules and permitting — basically all the stuff I wasn’t taught in the classroom.”

He credits his UNF experience with giving him the leg up on other recent graduates applying for jobs. During his time with Osprey Productions, he worked with everyone from Billy Joel to the MTV Campus Invasion Tour. He learned the difficulties of juggling e-mails and requests from managers, artist representatives and support staff, all while handling a full-class load. He was ready for anything with that kind of experience under his belt.

“OP Director is a 40-hour work week, along with classes and everything else you have going on,” he said. “I learned that I could handle the pressure. I also learned that professionally, I could talk to just about anyone, everything if they're big in the industry.”

Covering One Spark

A new addition to this year’s One Spark was a news bureau staffed entirely by UNF students dedicated to covering the festival’s creators. Ignite Media’s student journalists were led by Dr. Paula Horvath. They broke One Spark news stories online and across social media and shared their work with other news organizations throughout the region. The students saw their work published in The Florida Times-Union, Folio Weekly and the Jacksonville Business Journal — to name a few — and they generated thousands of visits to the Ignite Media website - ignitemediajax.com.

The news bureau’s managing editor, Brianna Sigman, said Ignite Media sprang from Horvath's social media for journalism course. The idea was pitched at the beginning of the spring semester to found a fully functional news bureau staffed by UNF students, and Sigman and her classmates were intrigued by the idea of covering the thriving crowdfunding festival. Within days, the core reporting and editing team had been formed, and Sigman was invited by Horvath to lead the bureau's editorial operation.

“I cried tears of joy,” she said. “I was instantly attracted to the idea of creating different kinds of content about One Spark, and the opportunity to get published work was too good to be true. It's fast-paced and kind of time-consuming, but that's a good thing. It means we're doing our best to cover all of the different aspects of One Spark.”

Between interviewing creators, taking pictures, updating the bureau’s various social media platforms and generating content, the team feverishly covered every major development coming out of One Spark's main office in downtown Jacksonville. Ignite Media also established a temporary physical bureau presence at CoWork Jax, a coworking office space located in the heart of downtown.

Jasmine Marshall, a junior communication major, saw her first Ignite Media byline end up as a story featured prominently in the pages of the Jacksonville Business Journal. The piece was about “Naturally Smart,” a line of gluten-free frozen desserts being rolled out by a One Spark creator. She credits the experience with helping to develop her journalistic chops. She interviewed the creators, wrote the article and posted it online herself. In short order, the story had been picked up by the business publication and splashed across its website. Not bad for her first published piece.

“It’s pretty thrilling to get that kind of a response,” Marshall said. “Any time you can develop your craft and get some professional experience out of a class, I’d view that as a win. But this class is getting us published all over Jacksonville. You couldn't ask for more.”

UNF student entrepreneurs

Some UNF students have even become One Spark creators. Last year, Josh Salestrom, Bryan Higham and Anthony Rossodivito, history students from Dr. James Broomall’s graduate seminar class, designed the framework for a musical history tour of downtown Jacksonville that could be ported to a mobile app. The UNF team placed in the top 30 percent for project votes and came away with more than $800 in capital to put toward designing the app.

This year, Sara Gaver, a mathematics education major and a member of the University Honors Program, designed a creator project that runs close to her heart. Gaver has arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that causes muscle weakness, joint contractures and fibrosis. It’s a condition that requires Gaver to use a wheelchair to get around campus, and necessitates 24-hour medical assistance because she doesn’t have much use of her arms or legs. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming a busy member of the UNF community thanks to some help from the campus Disability Resource Center. She lives on campus, attends class and hits the books with the help of a living assistant and the dedicated staff of the DRC. Her experiences have been so positive that she’s started working as a community outreach assistant with the DRC to help spread the word to other disabled students looking for an inclusive college environment.

That led her to dream up Project Closer for One Spark. The idea behind it is to design a campus framework for students with disabilities to live independently and go to school at any college they chose. Gaver's vision is to create a nonprofit organization based around the Project Closer framework that would be easily transferred to other institutions.

“We’d renovate one floor of a dorm room to be entirely ADA- [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant and handicap-accessible for students,” Gaver said. “And instead of having to worry about insurance or federal funding, Project Closer would allow the University’s nursing students to get internship or practical experience by handling the medical assistance for the students who need some help.”

Gaver said she modeled her idea after the University of Illinois’ system for disability assistance — and partly after her own experiences. She admits she’s had some struggles, such as the financial concerns tied to paying thousands of dollars in medical expenses. Providing a low- to no-cost alternatives in which students are able to receive consistent care from nursing students would mitigate some of those concerns.

“If I didn't have the support I have, I wouldn’t be in school, and I want students with disabilities to know they can go to school and continue on with their education,” she said. “Care just needs to be a little easier and more accessible, and I think we can do that if Project Closer is considered. That's why I brought it to One Spark.”

Growing together

Through and through, UNF is a prominent community partner of the One Spark crowdfunding festival. The University is a major part of the lives of many members of the One Spark staff, and co-founder Dennis Eusebio said the potential is there for One Spark to develop a relationship with UNF comparable to the association shared by the South by Southwest festival and the University of Texas at Austin.

“We’ve established a really solid, mutually beneficial relationship with the University, and we’ve benefited from having a core group of younger, dynamic thinkers with a strong education right in our backyard,” he said. “For One Spark, we want to continue to build that relationship with UNF as we build the festival. The potential for growth is unparalleled, and we can’t wait to grow along with the school that’s been really good to all of us.”