It sounds like a paradox: If you want free money, you have to pay for it. But that is how it typically works when applying for public funds. Serial entrepreneur Sedale Turbovsky set out to change that model with his startup, OpenGrants, a free platform that uses machine learning to sift through, list and match users with grant writers and opportunities.
Based in Sacramento, OpenGrants launched in September 2018. The idea came to Turbovsky, the startup’s CEO, after a previous venture forced him to think about why applying for public funds was so hard and expensive.
“The process is frighteningly bad,” he says. “It’s burdensome and exclusionary and not a good system. Easily 30 percent of your award is eaten up in administration and opportunity cost.”
The machine learning technology saves time and resources by summarizing and discovering grants. As a result, OpenGrants reduces the opportunity cost inherent in the grant funding process by 30-40 percent, he says. The team consists of three full-time employees. Users will be matched to a grant writer with domain expertise from a group of freelancers curated by OpenGrants (these are contractors who set their own rates and OpenGrants makes money on that transaction). The platform has about 160 users as of April 2020.
One of the keys in the development of OpenGrants was designing the platform to be more user-friendly, so the process doesn’t overwhelm people looking for public funding. “Similar to how Intuit, with TurboTax, unraveled the complexity of the tax code, we did the same for grant complexity,” Turbovsky says.
In addition, he wants OpenGrants to better support underrepresented groups. For example, studies show a persistent funding gap for black scientists compared to white scientists applying for National Institutes of Health research project grants. “Public funding has a serious equity problem,” Turbovsky says. “For underrepresented groups, (OpenGrants) makes funding easier and more affordable to discover, apply for and manage. For funding organizations, (OpenGrants) sells aggregated data that allows them to engage these groups to meet supplier diversity goals.”
Jason Law, political adviser and entrepreneur, is a strategic adviser for OpenGrants. After working in the Sacramento office at Impact Venture Capital for three years, he took a position as a foreign affairs advisor in the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, among other public service roles.
In that position, Law says, he recognized the challenges of providing services, funding and resources to large populations at the state level. But he also saw the benefits that the government could bring to the public. He had met Turbovsky while working at Impact, but they reconnected after Law left his position with the state.
“He mentioned that he was starting a company that was breaking down barriers in grant applications and also helping the government more efficiently deploy capital,” Law says. “That overarching mission was what intrigued me.”
As an adviser, Law says he helps Turbovsky understand the political and regulatory landscape, where budgets are being spent and how that affects grant opportunities. He also contributes by finding market opportunities, advising on fundraising, and connecting OpenGrants with nonprofits, businesses and local government agencies.
“It’s a two-fold approach,” Law says. “On the grant recipient side, we’re using machine learning and (artificial intelligence) technology to make grants more accessible and easier to understand and obtain. With government, it’s about leveraging data to make more informed decisions and manage outflow of funding more equitably and efficiently.”
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