cat_gamer_PD“We really want to get involved in the startup ecosystem,” is a common refrain to hear from big corporations. What’s less common is for them to put their money where their mouth is. The folks at LA’s Amplify accelerator are working hard to change this and might have cracked the code in the unlikeliest of places.

On March 23, Amplify will host a Games for Cats Hackathon in partnership with Purina and Friskies. Yes, you read that right. Games. For cats.

It’s actually the second such joint event between the two organizations, with the first being a more general pet products hackathon in November that attracted 60 developer participants – from in- and outside the Amplify community – and resulted in 23 products being created. This time around, Purina is increasing the stakes by putting $20,000 up for grabs – $15,000 will go to the winner, and $3,000 and $2,000 to the first and second runners up – while keeping open the possibility of additional funding and marketing dollars for products that show promise.

The idea actually originated with Reach Entertainment, a coworking tennant in Amplify’s space that does agency work for Nestle, the parent company of Purina, and hence the Friskies brand. In the past, Friskies had paid development firms to develop cat-oriented iPad games like “Cat Fishing,” “Tasty Treasure Hunt,” and “Party Mix-up” which have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and generated millions of OMG-inducing YouTube video views.

“Every time I talk to a big corporation or large marketing agency, they all want to ‘figure out how to tap into this whole startup boom,’ but in the end they never pull the trigger or move with any agility,” says Amplify partner Jeff Solomon. “It’s great that Friskies is actually putting their money where their mouth is.”

Solomon knows a thing or two about slow moving brands. Amplify had Coke and AT&T as “premium launch partners,” but hasn’t seen much involvement from them in the year-and-a-half since. The results of conversations with Pepsi, Nike, Mattel, Ogilvy, and others has been a similar amount of talk but little action.

Amplify is hoping that seeing Purina and Friskies take the lead will convince others to follow suit. Hackathons are one option. Scholarships, marketing partnerships, and equity investments are others. Whatever the format, and whether it results in any immediate benefit for Amplify and its portfolio companies isn’t even the point. Solomon simply believes that getting big brands involved with entrepreneurship will be a boon to the entire ecosystem.

There may not be many developers who dream about building games for Garfield and his friends. And the whole hackathon may be a cheap attempt to make the Friskies brand “digital.” But accessing the deep pockets of big brands is hard to do. Those entrepreneurs who prove themselves capable will be $20,000 richer and in a position to build the things that they really want going forward.

“Building games for cats may sound lame, but it’s not and that’s their customer, so fuck it!” Solomon says. “They communicate with tens of millions of cat owners, and they’re willing to put up the money to see what kind of creative ideas people can come up, and they should be commended for it.”

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]