Micah Kotch was in Portland recently from New York as the managing director of the accelerator URBAN-X, scouting out new companies for investment.
URBAN-X, in partnership with Urban Us, is part of MINI. That's Mini the old British car company (now owned by the Germans, BMW) but he and his team were looking for more than just "mobility solutions" companies, the rent-my-skateboard apps and sensors-in-the-trash-can firms.
"We work with startups that are reimagining city life, so mobility is a big part of that," he told the Business Tribune. They also might be working in real estate technology, construction technology, public health and safety, infrastructure, energy, water, waste or food. "This program has a wider aperture, and we're looking at the city as a lens for change. We're looking beyond the car business models."
URBAN-X is Mini's twice-a-year program to find up to 10 companies and help them with customer development, product development and fundraising. The goal is to make more efficient livable enjoyable cities, as well as money.
Kotch and his team have been on a 30-city tour of the U.S., meeting firms who are usually corralled by local economic development groups. Which is why he recently watched 10 pitches by Portland companies brought together by VertueLab (Formerly Oregon Best) at the offices of Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission).
Some of them were the usual suspects you may have read about in these pages: Validated, which lets you accrue mobility rewards (buy an Arcteryx jacket, get a Lyft credit), and ZincFive, the battery company that makes backup power sources for Portland traffic lights.
Kotch met with the Business Tribune at the rooftop bar of the Society Hotel after a long day of playing catcher.
One company he'd met was called Envoy and it is offering what he calls "mobility as an amenity." They would sell a landlord of a multi-family housing complex on the idea of offering electric vehicles with street-side charging stations, as a shared amenity in the building. Just like a foosball table or a gas barbecue, renters would have shared vehicles outside their door for use only by them and their neighbors.
Another that impressed him was Iotas, which offers smart home tech for multifamily buildings. Again, like Envoy, it's an amenity that landlords can offer to attract renters. In this case each apartment comes pre-fitted with all the smart home technology that people usually piece together themselves over time: an Amazon Echo or some other Alexa device, Sonos speakers, Nest thermostats, Google and Apple Homekit stuff...
Kotch and his team receive 450 applications and build a cohort of up to 10 companies twice a year. In Portland, he was near the last leg of the search, and must make the selection by the end of September. Cohort number five moves into action in November. (There's actually no moving involved. He says "Paris or Portland, it doesn't matter where they are." Good companies — or rather good founders — are scattered all over, not just in New York and Silicon Valley.)
Cities have inertia when it comes to transportation infrastructure. For example, he's found that in Munich the public is very proud of their well-funded light rail system, and disgruntled about things like bikeshares and scooter rollouts. He also thinks they treat their bicycles with care, not as commodities.
Mentioning the famous bikeshare graveyards in China, Kotch says that in 2017 in Shanghai the government removed 125,000 bikeshare bikes from intersections and sidewalks, which was only 10 percent of the city's total. "New York has the largest (U.S.) bikeshare program," he points out. "Ten thousand bikes."
"I think it's incumbent on planners and local governments to make the kind of investments that are going to make those modalities really safe and at the same time avoid the worst-case scenario, which we see in China with bikeshare, which is just littering of bicycles."
Kotch uses the term FAMGA to mean the big five tech companies Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon.
He thinks a lot of startups assume FAMGA are slow moving and are not very innovative, but he thinks that may not be so in urban tech. He points out Google struck a deal with KB Homes, a large homebuilder, with a view to embed Google Assistant (their Alexa) in each home.
"When you have that kind of lock-in, think about what it means for other startups?" Amazon did something similar with Lenar, embedding Alexa in new homes.
"If you have a smart home gadget it's tough to beat Amazon in that vertical."
Then there's Iota, which can be used to lower demand on the electricity grid on hot days.
"You know what keeps New York City electrical distribution engineers up at night? The 6.5 million window air conditioning units. And people are adding 200,000 more of them every year. On a hot day they can be 30 percent of the city's load."
A smart, connected building could reduce power on such days, by turning off some basement lights and even powering down little-used electronics in people's homes on smart plug strips. It could tell electric vehicles to charge at 8 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. The result would be a discount from the utility.
Homebuilders became interested in the grid after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Now they want resiliency. Hudson Yards, the mega development in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, even has its own 12-megawatt power plant, burning natural gas.
He looks at Sidewalk Labs (part of Alphabet, owner of Google) and its plan in Canada to build a quantified community from the ground up, where everything is measured and the data is shared. The Toronto waterfront could be transformed, with heated sidewalks and parks galore.
There's something smaller in Austin, Texas, now, called Pecan Street. Another quantified city, there are sensors everywhere: on the roof, water sensors in the toilets, and everyone agrees to share the data.
"People are asking about 'What about cyber security? How do you avoid the creepiness factor?' There's a lot of pushback from the community."
That's a public policy debate, and he sees a lack of leadership as municipalities hand over their data (such as 311 calls and traffic management) to big companies.
Kotch was born and raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, ground zero twice over for gentrification. "The city I want to live in is one with privacy and anonymity. It's an open garden, not controlled by one corporate behemoth who owns and sees all the data."
URBAN-X Cohort #4 Startups
? Park & Diamond — Park & Diamond makes biking better by reinventing the bike helmet, using next-generation materials to build a safer, more portable helmet
that can roll up into the shape of a water bottle for
easier carrying, while looking like a regular hat, cap or beanie
? ClearRoad — ClearRoad helps government agencies automate toll road pricing for any section of road without the need for traditional proprietary hardware infrastructure.
? Rentlogic — Rentlogic is a data-driven, letter-grade rating system for apartment buildings that aims to bring transparency and standardization to the residential real estate market.
? Avvir — Avvir automates quality assurance for the construction industry, providing real-time insights into the progress and potential defects on a project.
? Campsyte — Campsyte enables city dwellers to easily find and book private outdoor event space.
? Open Data Nation — Open Data Nation analyzes billions of public data records for cities and insurance carriers to predict and proactively mitigate problems, such as car crashes as part of the Vision Zero Initiative, and prepare for the safe deployment of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles.
? Sapient Industries — Sapient Industries has developed a smart outlet that senses and learns human behavior patterns in order to automate a building's energy management.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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