BROOKLYN — Mini is busy underwriting the future of (hip) American cities with its pocketbook. Mini’s US arm is behind a startup incubator, the Urban-X Accelerator, helping polish fledgling companies that may make the city of the future even more livable. Even if some of the startups’ core offerings will compete for the cars and crossovers than Mini sells.
Mini is doing its work in New York City’s hippest borough, Brooklyn. Recently Urban-X graduated its fifth cohort of startups doing products such as free urban shuttles, smarter trash collection, automating new-building construction, and creating more effective ways to sell used clothing. If the startups do well, Mini will profit from them.
Urban-X is based in Brooklyn’s upscale Greenpoint section, close to Manhattan, in a refurbished building — sorry, creative space — called A/D/O. When the building facade was changed during reconstruction, designers made sure key graffiti on the front wall was not harmed. Urban authenticity and all. It was the site of a moving-on ceremony that was notable because presenters for each of the six startups were polished and well-spoken. Nobody looked at their shoes while speaking and their shoes were not scuffed. It helps that A/D/O had a nine-panel TV array to help tell their stories the audience of investors, thought leaders, and media.
As to why Mini is doing this — not just moving people into Minis with hybrid and electric motors, and then autonomous driving — Urban-X managing director Micah Kotch said:
Mini has always been a quintessentially urban brand. It was started in the late 1950s as a response to a particular urban problem which was the first gasoline crisis. And so the creative use of space, the transverse engine, that Sir Alec Issigonis pioneered, was and continues to be within the DNA of a company built around inventiveness and creativity. Mini is providing a better solution for people who live in cities.
Presenter polish is important because the audience included venture capital companies from both coasts eager to take the companies to the next level. “You can have a really great story and, if you can’t tell that story, it’s tough for people to understand what you’re working on, what your vision is, and where you’re going,” says Kotch.
So far, Urban-X has worked with 37 companies. The accelerator program runs 20 weeks, in the A/D/O facility with field trips to “U.S., Europe, Asia, and beyond” — paging Buzz Lightyear — and selected companies get $150,000 grant to help the founders think more about product and less about fundraising while at A/D/O. The recent grads and their backgrounds were:
Circuit (formerly The Free Ride, top photo and above) is an all-electric, short-range, ridesharing company providing city-goers with free, sustainable transportation. It’s based on a three-row GEM electric scooter that resembles weather-tight, three-row golf cart with safety belts. It also resembles a rolling billboard, which it is, and that provides about four-fifths of the operating revenue. The balance is picked up by a municipality that wants to ease congestion, such as from a tourist board or a local business. The ads aren’t as big as on billboard trucks, but those vehicles do nothing other than burn fuel as the ads are driven about town.
At Circuit of the Americas, the Austin racetrack that hosts music festivals and in October the US Grand Prix, the company provides last-mile transportation from an Uber dropoff area to the track itself. Circuit has routes in the Hamptons, South Florida, the Jersey Shore, and California.
Borrow leases to a special niche market: people who want to rent an EV for three to nine months. Borrow calls it a subscription. Shorter-term leases are handled by traditional car rental agencies and longer-term leases by auto dealers. Borrow buys used EVs, whose early depreciation is greater than that of combustion-engine cars, and finds a willing market in extended-stay business travelers who want to be green, people with a seasonal home who don’t have a permanent car in each home and don’t want to relocate their own car, and EV-intenders who want to try before they buy.
A Platinum vehicle like the Tesla Model S is $1,100 a month for a nine-month lease and $1,499 for three-month leases. Plus insurance: Either use your own carrier or Borrow arranges for an upcharge. A Premium car, the BMW i3 (all 13 feet of it) is $525 / $575 / $625 monthly for nine, six or three-month periods. A City vehicle, the Fiat 500e, is $400 / $450 /$500 a month. The Campus car, the Smart for Two, is $200 / $250 / $300.
Thrilling says it’s “the first dedicated e-commerce platform for vintage and second-hand stores, reducing carbon, waste and water footprints.” Translation: Thrilling takes in used clothing from consignment shops, pretties up the presentation with professional photos, verifies sizes, categorizes them to make it easier for buyers to find what they want, sells them online, and sends the original store a check, less 30 percent. It’s a slick operation, not quite like what you’d expect from a car company’s venture fund. But there is excitement seeing lots of clothes in one place compared with the more limited selection of second-hand or vintage-clothing store you might find a block or two away from the A/D/O incubator. And if the local places go under, as is happening with independent bookstores, how many places are left where the owner can bring a cat to work?
Treau will sell high-efficiency air conditioning (and heating if needed) for urban buildings that lack central A/C and rely on inefficient (and comparatively costly) through-the-wall A/C units. They’re intended for older buildings that can’t be centrally serviced by air ducts or where it’s not possible to install split systems that include a compressor/condenser on the roof, compressed coolant gas in pipes to each unit, and an air handler in each unit.
GreenQ is a Tel Aviv company that does truck-based waste analytics systems to improve logistics, diversion, and recycling. Sensors see how much waste and what type is picked up at each stop. That determines how often each customer or building needs to be serviced. Fewer garbage trucks will need to roam, clog, and noise-pollute city streets. A lot of urbanites would happily GoFund a startup that figures out how to reduce or eliminate hydraulic squeal and banging noises. It’s not on the company’s map right now, but if the truck calculates the weight of each pickup, customers could be rewarded for creating less refuse.
Toggle is about automating the creation of rebar forms. It sounds dull and probably is dull, but there’s enormous potential to reduce the cost of new, commercial construction. A quick backgrounder: Most buildings more than one or two stories high are now made of poured cement, plus steel beams. Concrete resists gravity just fine but needs reinforced steel wire and bars — rebar — inside to provide additional strength against bending. It’s incredibly labor-intensive, the steelworkers don’t come cheap, and they’re in short supply. Toggle will fabricate the rebar forms in a Brooklyn facility, then truck them to the building site, reducing job-site congestion. In the future, the work might be done onsite, inside a tricked-out shipping container. Toggle says it’s building “an automated process that utilizes software and industrial robotics to reduce costs and increase productivity of construction projects.” That might go beyond rebar at some point.
Buildstream (formerly GearBuddy) says it uses the “IoT [internet of things] and machine learning to digitize every aspect of construction, including equipment like bulldozers and trucks, to make construction more efficient, effective and safer.” It knows where every piece of power equipment is on the jobsite, which might be a mining site stretching over several miles, and if there is replacement equipment available. A sensor on each machine records telltale vibrations to predict how close to capacity the machine is working, and also if a component is approaching failure.
Urban-X is part of the broader BMW i-Ventures investment operation that also has offices in Silicon Valley. i-Ventures launched in 2011 in lower Manhattan, then in 2017 moved to Palo Alto, CA, to be closer to the locus of VCs. Now, BMW Group, which includes Mini, has a New York presence again at a time when Big Apple tech is heating up. Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Spotify, Facebook, and Amazon all have big footprints. Cornell and Israel’s Technion Institute combined to build a new Cornell Tech campus teaching graduate engineering as well as business on Roosevelt Island in the East River, a stone’s throw from what would have been the Amazon HQ2 campus. (And still might; there are very few areas in the US that can cough up 25,000 tech workers for an expansion project.)
The Brooklyn incubator is also backed by Urban Us, an early-stage investor for “startups re-imagining cities.”
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