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June 06, 2017  |  permalink

URBAN-X: Putting the Humanity Back Into Technology


(I’m currently the Urbanist-in-Residence at URBAN-X, the urban startup accelerator run by BMW MINI in conjunction with the venture capital firm Urban Us. This originally ran at Fast Company’s branded content arm FastCo.Works on May 31, 2017.)

Fourteen weeks after converging on Brooklyn, the eight startups of URBAN-X–a venture accelerator founded by MINI–had reached the moment of truth: Demo Day. Taking the stage in a Ghostbusters-style jumpsuit, Upcycles cofounder Daniel Wendlek channeled the accelerator’s spirit in a jeremiad against delivery drones.

“You know what? F%*&$ robots!” he said to wild applause. “Cities struggle as it is to provide space for one of our most vital resources–human beings.” His company’s alternative: an electric-assisted tricycle capable of 500-pound deliveries at a cost of only $.002 per mile.

And so it went for 40 minutes, a stream of pitches advocating for what Micah Kotch, URBAN-X managing director, had described in his introduction as “human-first design.” Whether it was Wendlek railing against robots, Contextere CEO Gabe Batstone promising to empower blue-collar workers through data (“I want to create Iron Man, not Skynet!”), or WearWorks CEO Keith Kirkland vowing that a blind runner would complete the New York City marathon using the company’s touch-sensitive Wayband, putting people at the center of urban tech was the theme of the evening.

While half the cohort celebrated people power, the other half underscored how urban tech is the right alternative when urban policies fail. Early on, O2-O2 CEO Dan Bowden highlighted the urgent use case for his company’s brand of air-filtration facewear by observing that 22 million residents of greater Beijing were at that moment trapped indoors by a sandstorm seven times smoggier than the average punishing day in the city.

RevMax’s Jonathan Weekley demonstrated how his company’s on-demand fleet-management software could boost the average utilization of taxis and ride-hailing vehicles from 50% to 74%–an absolute necessity when unchecked ride-hailing has added 600 million vehicle miles to New York City streets.

“We need to be thinking about what is going to change and benefit individual lives,” URBAN-X program director Miriam Roure said. “When technologies are implemented at an urban scale, we need to understand the socio-economic impact–direct and indirect–they could have. We don’t see disruption as necessarily positive.”

As Shawn Broderick, managing director of venture fund SOSV, noted earlier in the evening, “The big picture here is that cities are becoming more vital to everyone’s life choices. This is a megatrend that won’t stop in the next 5 or 10 or 20 years–this will last an entire century.”

For the hundreds of city residents crowded into the URBAN-X workshop and spilling out into the hall, it might have appeared the startup founders onstage had always known exactly what they were doing. But for those who were present at the beginning–the experts-in-residence, guest mentors, and especially the program directors–the progress was particularly sweet. Fourteen weeks ago, they had products and projects and prototypes in search of a business model. Tonight, they had the foundations of a viable, scalable company on their hands.

What else did each team receive in exchange for a small equity share in their startup, and where would they go from here? For one thing, graduation had appreciably increased their chances for funding. As many as one-third of all startups receiving Series A funding are veterans of accelerators, as investors look to gatekeepers such as Y Combinator and others who instill a rigor in founding teams and provide them the right connections for future growth. For another, they could tout their affiliation with one of the world’s leading brands: MINI.

As the founders of each team rushed to prepare their booths for hundreds of visitors and rehearsed their pitches one last time, a few shared their thoughts on what they learned. For Sencity cofounders Steven Bai and Ivan Chen, who moved to New York from Sydney, the program offered both personal introductions and technical validation. “Here in America,” said Bai, “we’re talking to municipalities” about their interactive trash can, the TetraBin. “As foreigners, why should they have conversations with us? Thanks to the program, there’s a basic layer of trust.”

Other teams learned important lessons about their potential customers and themselves. Upcycles cofounders Wendlek and Nick Wong entered the program unsure about whether they were bike manufacturers or a delivery service, for which they already had customers. They’re the former, they decided. “In the next few months, we’ll build five trikes for a pilot,” said Wong, “and figure out our manufacturing process so we can build 50 by the end of the year.”

Contextere’s Batstone didn’t need help from URBAN-X in learning how to build a startup, having run software companies for 15 years. But embedding in an urban tech accelerator did teach him that the company’s software, originally designed for military and energy customers, also has a powerful role to play in maintaining urban infrastructure, such as the electric grid. “We came here as an experiment, as someone not in the process of raising money,” Batstone said. “We knew that surrounding ourselves with a bunch of fledgling entrepreneurs would give us some of their energy–being around people who have that spark is worth it.”

For the rookies, the opposite proved true. Envairo’s Gabe Peschiera entered the program alone. He graduated with a team, potential customers, and several pilot projects to demonstrate the efficacy of his smart building software.

“The value of the program is not one thing, it’s everything,” he said. “Figuring out how to engage potential advisers. Learning how VCs think. How to use AngelList for recruiting. How to have conversations about equity with potential cofounders. And all with companies that share my values. They’re not just going to build tech to make advertising more clickable–they’re building stuff in the world they want to share. All of us are trying to solve real problems with real solutions.”

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow at NewCities and the director of strategy of its offshoot LA CoMotion — an annual urban mobility festival in the Arts District of Los Angeles. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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