Startup mania grips inmates as their dreams go high-tech



California: One by one, the entrepreneurs, clad in crisp blue jeans and armed with PowerPoint presentations, stood before a roomful of investors and tech bloggers to explain their dreams of changing the world.

For these exuberant times in Silicon Valley, the scene was familiar; the setting, less so.
With the young and ambitious flocking again to northern California to launch Internet companies, there were signs one recent morning that startup mania has taken hold even behind the faded granite walls of California's most notorious prison.

"Live stream has gone mainstream. Mobile video usage went up and is expected to increase by 28 per cent over the next five years," said Eddie Griffin, who was pitching a music streaming concept called 'At the Club' and happens to be finishing a third stint for drug possession at San Quentin State Prison, after spending the last 15 years behind bars.
Griffin was one of seven San Quentin inmates who presented startup proposals on 'Demo Day' as part of the Last Mile programme, an entrepreneurship course modeled on startup incubators that take in batches of young companies and provide them courses, informal advice and the seed investments to grow. 

According to business news website Xconomy, incubator programmes —which it tracks — have tripled in number for each of the past three years, proliferating from Sao Paulo to Stockholm at a pace that has fueled talk in tech circles of an 'incubator bubble'.

Last Mile founder Chris Redlitz, a local venture capitalist, says his goal was never to seek out a genuine investment opportunity inside a prison but to educate inmates about tech entrepreneurship and bridge the knowledge gap between Silicon Valley's wired elite and the rest of the region's population. 

Inmates, after all, are not allowed to run businesses. They do not have access to cellphones — much less Apple's latest iPhone developer toolkits — and they use computers only under close supervision.

A lot to learn
After his presentation in San Quentin's chapel, which received a rousing reception from an audience that included prison warden Kevin R. Chappell, Griffin told a reporter it was unlikely he would launch his startup idea immediately after being released.

"I've never used a cellphone. Technology is kind of foreign in this environment." 
But to hear the inmates use jargon such as 'lean startup' and 'minimum viable product' speaks to an unmistakable truth about the Bay Area zeitgeist, where startups, for better or worse, have come to embody upward mobility, ambition, and hustle. 

"If they were doing this in the '80s there may have been a different theme or model," said Wade Roush, Xconomy's chief correspondent. "But in this day and age, becoming an entrepreneur or starting a business is a form of self-actuation."

 Situated on prime waterfront land, San Quentin is perhaps California's home to the state's only death row.

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