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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 09/02/2011

The underground venture capital economy


One million dollars in $100 dollar bills is displayed at the Money Museum in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago June 22, 2011. (Scott Olson - GETTY IMAGES)

At a time when the above-ground economy seems to be stuck in perpetual neutral, something very interesting is happening in the underground economy. On do-it-yourself crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, significant amounts of capital are starting to flow to a group of ingenious projects that bridge the gap between the creative arts and cutting-edge technology — a sweet spot that’s pure money. In some cases, entrepreneurs are raising $100K or $200K at a time — even when they ask for only a fraction of that. In the post-downgrade economy, these instances are proof that a solid business plan, a way to reward passionate supporters and a little DIY mojo goes a long way.

Consider some of the projects that are being funded these days. Two recent crowd favorites include the Desktop Jellyfish Tank, which set out to raise $3,000 and ended up raising more than $100,000 from supporters, and the Gamma Ray Camera that can see through walls, which is asking for more than $250,000 in order to find a lost DaVinci painting in Italy. And that’s not all. Other Kickstarter success stories include the Diaspora social network (which Mark Zuckerberg backed), an iPod Nano watch and the Glif iPhone tripod — all of which raised well in excess of $100,000 each. All told, more than 2,000 Kickstarter projects are launching each month — and that momentum is accelerating. Overall, Kickstarter projects have attracted more than $50 million in total funding.

Certainly, this re-allocation of capital to somewhat frivolous projects like a Desktop Jellyfish Tank does not appear in Bernanke’s projections for broad-based economic expansion.

And that’s exactly the point. At a time when interest rates are as close to zero as possible and savings rates from banks are microscopic, where exactly can you put your money these days and earn a decent return? At a time when banks have turned off the lending spigot to all but the very best projects, how do garage start-ups with quirky concepts raise money these days? Kickstarter solves this problem. Create a project profile on Kickstarter, round up a few hundred of your friends, make a quick video and voila! You might just be the next, great Internet success story.

The early success of Kickstarter has already spawned sites such as ProFounder, which is as close you can get to VC funding without actually pitching the moneymen on Sand Hill Road. There is a unique, underground venture capital economy happening right now in America that is, in many ways, off the radar screens of economists. When we tally up the economic indicators, the conventional wisdom seems to be that economic growth in this country has stalled. Yet, that same conventional wisdom ignores the economic activity on DIY sites like Kickstarter. It would be ironic indeed if the Web ends up disrupting venture capital investors from the very business of funding disruptive Web start-ups.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 09/02/2011

Categories:  Business, Dominic Basulto, Entrepreneurship, Invention, Morning Read, Technology

 
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