In May, the Monday morning after Demo Day, teams arrived at URBAN-X one last time. It may have been the end of the 14-week program, but it was hardly the end of the road for these entrepreneurs. Working in the Brooklyn-based accelerator built by MINI, the eight startups had made real progress on some groundbreaking concepts—from AI-enhanced worker augmentation to GPS-enabled haptic feedback devices. And while each team focused on very different products and platforms, all were centered on one lofty goal: making cities more livable.
As the teams conducted their exit interviews, they took stock. How could they build on the experience? How would they secure the necessary resources to move forward?
One could ask similar questions of the program itself. What sets URBAN-X apart from the hundreds or even thousands of startup accelerators around the world? And what is it that makes an urban tech accelerator “urban,” exactly? To answer that, you’d have to look beyond the teams to the twin constituencies with the final say in whether the three-month-long program was successful or not—MINI and tech investors.
MINI executives had taken a close look at four of the teams in March, during an expedition to the automaker’s headquarters in Munich. Between pitching BMW Group board member Peter Schwarzenbauer, the founders faced a battery of questions from experts in fields ranging from AI and design to sensors and mapping.
Revmax, with its on-demand fleet management platform, spurred the automaker’s big-data and autonomous-vehicle teams to think beyond passenger safety to how they might someday manage on-demand electric vehicles. “If you look at all of the [automakers], they’re building this software in isolation,” says Revmax CEO Jonathan Weekley, who argued his company was a natural partner that could bring outside perspective to the auto giant. (He had a point about partnerships—recently, Alphabet’s Waymo signed with Lyft to someday dispatch its AVs.)
But perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the trip was the startup with seemingly the least relevance to an automotive OEM. Envairo makes software that detects how many people are sitting in a room using nothing more than a thermometer and applied math. With this information, building systems would know when to turn down the heat and turn up AC on a room-by-room basis, potentially saving thousands of dollars in heating-and-cooling costs for a single building, or billions of dollars across the entire industry.
In Munich, Envairo founder Gabe Peschiera met with Michael Müller-Ruff, the man tasked with shrinking the energy footprint of BMW Group power-hungry facilities. Using as much electricity as a small city, BMW Group operations draw 1.3 terawatt-hours annually from Germany’s grid—enough to power 300,000 homes. Müller-Ruff aims to reduce that figure by 3% year after year relating on the units produced.
“It’s a huge number, and all the low-hanging fruit has been consumed,” he says. “So it’s always good to bring in very clever ideas.” Müller-Ruff offered to test Envairo’s software at BMW Group North America headquarters in New Jersey. “It’s important for us to have different opportunities as to where to invest, and energy is becoming more and more important,” he says.
This anecdote again raises the question—if Envairo’s tech works just as well in suburban office parks, what is it that makes it urban? But the managing partner of venture fund Urban Us, Shaun Abrahamson, who served as a mentor to the teams, puts a different spin on the question. “We’ve invested in 26 companies, and the gap we see is, What’s the difference between stakeholders and customers?” he says. “The value in having an urban tech accelerator is that you have multiple stakeholders to address. You can sell to government, but real estate is important, too—and so are automotive companies.” In other words, overlapping customers is a feature, not a bug.
The other telling detail is why Envairo appeals to MINI: Germany’s aggressive emission reductions are part of its Energiewende (or “energy transition”) to renewables from coal, oil, and nuclear sources. “I sat down with a handful of teams,” says Barretto Bay Strategies principal Paul Lipson, “and what interests me is that these folks are working at the intersection of technology and policy.” Envairo isn’t disrupting German policymakers; it’s a means toward achieving their objectives.
Needless to say, these are not mainstream views in the venture capital community, where disruption beats accommodation every time. But as URBAN-X prepares for its third cohort, it’s clear there’s a pressing need for entrepreneurs eager to solve problems and address challenges that literally surround us—in buildings, on the streets, and even in the air we breathe. Their creativity, clever thinking, and persistence could drive change that truly makes a difference.
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.