Tech accelerator attains nonprofit status to fund future programs

Amanda Septimo, (left) Phil Shearer, (middle) and Miguel Sanchez (right) plan for a pitch meeting in the MetaBronx office in Hunts Point. Photo: Carmen Reinicke

It’s Friday, and Hunts Point-based accelerator MetaBronx is planning its day helping local tech startups prepare pitches that will attract investment money. The company’s co-founder Miguel Sanchez, 38, sits in a sunny room at the front of the office that has a long white conference table, a Persian-style carpet, and a no-shoes policy.

“I got into tech because I got a stolen computer when I was 10 years old,” said Sanchez. Today he runs his own digital company, Mass Ideation, based out of the BankNote building on Lafayette Avenue. He co-founded MetaBronx in 2015 with Phil Shearer, 39, to help create opportunities for Bronx based women and minority-owned startups representing ‘the 99 percent,’ middle and low-income people.

The initial group of businesses MetaBronx worked with yielded the first investment to a Bronx startup in 2016 when Access Bazaar, a digital wholesale distribution channel for bodegas, secured a $1 million investment from Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, an investment group. However, even after Access Bazaar’s success, some investors still question the benefit of investing in a company founded in the poorest congressional district in the nation, so MetaBronx is looking for ways to fund startups that go beyond venture capital. The accelerator is incorporated as a not-for-profit, and is currently fundraising for its next program through private sponsors and donors.

“I’m not targeting the area and probably not likely to see much else there,” said Charlie O’Donnell, who runs Brooklyn Bridge Ventures and decided to invest in Access Bazaar.

MetaBronx has seen many companies passed over because they were associated with the Bronx, like Neture, a startup that brings broadband to underserved communities, and was in the first group of businesses.

“One investor said, ‘Listen, you need to find something for a group of people that are going to be able to pay for the service,’” said Marlin Jenkins, 44, founder and CEO of Neture. “There’s definitely groups of people who don’t see the benefit.”

Part of MetaBronx’s goal is to help startups find the right venture capital firms that do see the benefit. But venture capital is not the only money that startups can seek, and so MetaBronx also helps startups find other paths to growth. For one startup, The Glass Files, a private media management system, that meant working with schools. The Glass Files was able to have digital apprentices – high school students interested in tech- work with them over the summer through a program at the NYC Department of Education.

MetaBronx, with MIT CoLab serving as its fiscal partner, was set to begin working with the second cohort of businesses this week. It is also raising money through other donors, and has nearly reached its goal of $250,000. Still, deciding to incorporate MetaBronx as a not-for-profit was not an easy decision.

“For me, personally, growing up in the Bronx, that’s all you know,” said Sanchez. “I wanted to get away from charity.”
But for now, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The MetaBronx directors are focused on what each startup can achieve for the South Bronx community with six months of guidance in the accelerator program.

“There is a billion-dollar idea here,” Sanchez said, pointing out the window of the office. “The Bronx has made money for other people and places. We need investors here.”

The story was updated on Jan. 8.