“We call this one the Bane mask,” says Dan Bowden, who’s wearing a pair of mirror-shades attached to a battery pack on his belt. When he lifts a metal mask to his face, magnets snap it into place over his nose and mouth, triggering the flow of clean, filtered air. Bowden is the cofounder of O2-O2, a fledgling startup betting that such masks may one day become de rigueur in a country with a dramatically diminished Environmental Protection Agency. Until then, there’s China—where consumers bought more than a billion air-filtration products last year.
The Bane mask (jokingly named for Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises) is just one in a boxful of rapidly assembled prototypes in a corner of the cavernous Brooklyn headquarters of URBAN-X, a first-of-its-kind tech accelerator built on the idea that entrepreneurs have the power to make cities more livable and lovable.
A year-old partnership between BMW’s MINI division and SOSV, the world’s largest accelerator network for pre-seed startups (it graduates more than 150 a year), URBAN-X runs eight companies through three-month sprints from start to Demo Day. In exchange for a small-but-significant piece of equity, each team receives $60,000 in cash along with in-kind assistance from a super-group of hardware hackers and entrepreneurs-in-residence, including designers and engineers from BMW and MINI.
Bowden and his partners haven’t alighted upon the killer app for their patent-pending filtration masks yet, but they have time—Demo Day is still two months away.
From the MINI perspective, nurturing smart, scalable ideas is crucial, but identifying the next unicorn isn’t their only goal. To hear the accelerator’s managing director, Micah Kotch, tell it, the returns the automaker is looking for go beyond a return on their investment. “We’re not a traditional venture-capital firm,” he says. “As an urban brand built on challenging convention, MINI is working to develop solutions that are truly relevant to our shared existence in cities. That doesn’t happen without a dialogue with people shaping the future of our cities, asking the hard questions and solving really big problems.”
Why is it incumbent on an automaker to ask these questions? “Because we believe mobility is a fundamental human right, and the future of mobility is inherently linked to city infrastructure: to the built environment, to the energy grid, and to other pieces of our existing urban fabric,” Kotch says. “It allows us to widen the aperture to understand where real innovation is taking place.”
So, what might those questions about the future of cities be, and how does each startup in the current URBAN-X cohort intend to answer them? After spending a month so far mentoring these startups as FastCo.Works’ “urbanist-in-residence,” here’s my sense:
- How does an automaker enter the ride-hailing business? Revmax is building a better Uber, mining New York City taxi trips and other data to predict hot spots of demand and thereby increase vehicle utilization rather than just have sedans driving around.
- What’s the future of interactive technology in the urban streetscape? Sencity is designing the building blocks of a more playable city, starting with LED-equipped waste bins that offer games in exchange for trash.
- How do we commute and exercise in cities choked by pollution? That’s O2-O2’s question, which illustrates both the limits of what startups can do and their necessity. One obvious solution is to enforce stricter regulations on air pollution, as Bowden and his cofounders would be the first to admit. But once that’s off the table, then what?
- Can we retrofit technology to create better-performing buildings and more productive people? Buildsense.io aims to equip the humble thermometer to understand how many people are in a room at any given moment, and direct cool or warm airflow accordingly, thereby saving energy.
- What’s the future of local governance? Citiesense (notice a naming trend yet?) is creating a data platform for sharing local property information, including rents and permits. Originally pitched to managers of business improvement districts (BIDs), the service is now being developed as B2B.
- How do you use technology to empower the human workforce instead of subordinating it to machines? Contextere’s solution to the automation trap is to write software capable of delivering insights to blue-collar workers when they need it, enhancing the value of human experience.
- Is there a place for human-powered local logistics? While drones and delivery bots get all the attention, Upcycles is designing a local logistics system for zero-emission cargo bicycles (or rather, tricycles) for B2B neighborhood deliveries.
- How can we develop new technologies to improve the lives of the disabled? Wearworks’ goal is nothing less than creating a new “language” of haptic feedback that empowers blind and visually impaired users with a new means of navigating urban environments.
But perhaps the most important question that URBAN-X is meant to answer is this: What does the MINI brand mean beyond the iconic MINI Cooper—and how can its values be applied to urban living or fashion or food? That’s why URBAN-X is the centerpiece of A/D/O, a 23,000-square-foot combination studio, restaurant, store, and workshop named after the original MINI “Amalgamated Drawing Office.”
Over the next two months—during the countdown to Demo Day on May 4—Fast Company will follow these startups as they strive to translate the challenges facing cities into functioning businesses. The sprint starts now.
Greg Lindsay is a contributor to FastCo.Works and a senior fellow for the New Cities Foundation.
This article was created and commissioned by MINI. URBAN-X is an accelerator that invests in, educates, and advocates for companies shaping the future of cities through technology and design. Founded by MINI with joint venture partner Urban.us, URBAN-X forges meaningful connections with leaders in the public and private sectors, helping its startups turn compelling ideas into viable, scalable solutions for urban life.