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“Be in love with problems” – boss of Mini-backed accelerator Urban-X gives advice to start-ups

Cities are growing more advanced all the time but the companies who pioneer this innovation need funding to realise their goals. Compelo reporter Felix Todd speaks to Urban-X managing director Micah Kotch, a start-up accelerator dedicated to helping business working on enhancing city living, about how rising tech firms can make cities smarter

Innovative technologies drive cities forward – making them safer, more efficient, and better equipped.

But the companies that create them encounter the same perennial problem as any organisation in any sector – funding.

Tech start-up accelerator initiative Urban-X was set up by BMW’s car brand Mini and venture fund Urban Us precisely to solve that problem.

It periodically invests $100,000 (£76,000) each in up to ten young companies from around the world specifically dedicated to improving city living through technology and design.

Alongside the funding, it also provides access to its expertise and resources to aid growth.

“Together we’ve funded some of the most interesting companies who are working to improve city living, and we work with start-ups from all around the world,” says Urban-X managing director Micah Kotch, speaking to Compelo.

“In the last programme, which ended in February, six of the seven companies have gone on to get the next round of capital, so things have been working well.

“We started this about two years ago – we’re in the fourth programme now – and I think what we’re seeing is a really interesting evolution of what we consider to be urban tech.”

 

What is urban tech?

Micah describes urban tech as anything that works to improve the day-to-day lives of those who live in cities.

Much of it pertains to smart cities – those that use data and tech to connect city infrastructure and enhance quality of life.

Advances like autonomous vehicles and 5G would fall under its umbrella as they streamline and enhance the daily urban routine.

urban x

But it goes further than that to cover all aspects of mobility and transportation, construction tech, real estate, energy, water, waste, public health and safety, infrastructure and more.

“We define the urban tech space really broadly – it’s fundamentally about the way that our cities are going to change,” explains Micah.

“You look at companies that have already massively changed our cities, like Airbnb, Uber or WeWork, and the valuations are quite high.”

Some of the current cohort include Park & Diamond, a start-up trying to reinvent the bike helmet with more portable and fashionable designs like beanie hats and caps, and Campsyte, which enables city dwellers to easily find and book private outdoor event space.

One of the standout companies for Micah is RoadBotics, which uses machine learning to provide automated road condition surveys.

He says: “RoadBotics is a really great story. “It’s about road monitoring and maintenance, which doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s a massive problem globally, and it now has about 50 business customers all around the world.

“And in the last cohort there’s a company called Rentlogic [which aims to bring transparency and standardisation to the residential real estate].

“While it’s currently only available in New York City, it has also scaled very quickly here and is looking at opportunities in other cities internationally.”

Tips for applying to Urban-X programme

The five-month programme, which runs twice a year, uses an open application process through the Urban-X website.

Micah describes the criteria for applicants as companies who have a “growth mindset.”

He said: “We look at the opportunity, we get excited about solutions that we think can scale to 100 cities over the next five years – the size of the problem they’re tacking is key.

“Then it’s a question of the resources that we have, which include industrial design, software development, UX, mechanical and electrical engineering – then we see if we can help them scale-up in a relatively short amount of time.”

urban-x
URBAN-X programme’s most recent cohort

When it comes to the investment, Urban-X will decide how much to allocate on a case-by-case basis.

For certain companies that might have already raised money, it will co-invest with others.

And for those at a more conceptual stage it will assess the company and set the terms of investment accordingly.

“We’d like to see more activity in spaces like traffic issues, affordable housing, water issues, food and waste, and infrastructure challenges,” says Micah.

What makes a good entrepreneur, according to Urban-X

Entrepreneurs pop up left, right and centre these days but only a precious few make it to the top.

For Micah and Urban-X, attitude and outlook are the most important things when it comes to choosing who they’re going to fund and work with.

“The most critical thing we look for is being intentional about the culture that they want to build – do they have a growth mindset, and are they relentless?” he says.

“The founders that I love to work with are the ones who can’t do anything else – they’re consumed with bringing their vision to life.

“They eat, sleep and breath their vision for their venture and they’re able to convince people to join them.

“They will succeed at all costs and against all odds.”

The programme is interested in companies that want to solve a real problem, as opposed to those who are looking for a “quick flip”.

It concerns itself with entrepreneurs who are in their business for the right reasons, and Micah argues that without this mindset, a start-up is doomed for failure.

“They have to be completely committed to what they are doing – I haven’t seen it work otherwise,” he explains.

“Entrepreneurship has become a sport and a fashionable thing to do.

“But when you’re in it, it’s a slog, and unless you have this motivating factor, it’s a lot easier not to go through it.

“Ultimately, the key is being in love with the problem, I think. The default is falling in love with your solution – like it’s their widget, or their piece of code they’ve created – it’s very easy to fall in love with that.

“The great entrepreneurs fall in love with the problem – and I don’t know if you can teach that.

“Tou can teach a lot of other skills around that but deeply understanding and being driven to solve a problem – I don’t know if that’s necessarily teachable.”

How cities can move forward

It’s difficult to pin down the exact components of a good start-up ecosystem within a city.

Certainly funding and talent are key, but other issues like a propensity for innovation and global technological advances can improve or hinder progress.

Micah sees technology like 5G as an enabler of innovation, but feels city policy is critical to helping start-ups thrive.

Silicon Valley
A birds-eye-view of Silicon Valley (Wikipedia Commons: Coolcaesar)

“Things like open data policies are a critical component of a good start-up ecosystem,” he says.

“Without good policy, start-ups don’t get the chance to show what they can do properly and expand.

Micah also pointed to serial entrepreneurs who continually produce groundbreaking ideas as a major part of the backbone of any good start-up scene, as well as both human and financial capital.

Resources, too, were at the top of his list, with things like mentor and angel networks being referenced as vital to a growing business environment.

“But probably the most critical component is the people – it’s one of the hallmarks I think of why Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley,” adds Micah.

“I believe deeply that cities have always been crucibles for new thinking and creativity, and engines of economic growth, and I’m bullish on the future of cities playing that same kind of role.”

The application deadline for the next cohort is 31 August, and it will start in November. Visit urban-x.com/apply.