Although the application deadline for URBAN-X Cohort 07 isn’t until October 1, it’s worth getting ahead of the pack by fine-tuning those city life-reimagining solutions and applying now. (Learn more about the seven startups of Cohort 06 here). In that spirit, we’ve highlighted three opportunity areas calling for singular solutions, mold-breaking fixes and scalable business models that render our cities healthier, more sustainable and more equitable places to live.
#proptech (Construction and real estate)
The business of building is booming.
The global construction industry is expected to enjoy annual growth at an average of 3.4 percent during the 2018-2022 forecast period, per data and analytics firm GlobalData. By 2022, the global construction output is projected to reach $12.9 trillion, up from $10.8 trillion in 2017.
URBAN-X alumni Avvir and Versatile Natures are two startup companies using emergent technologies to speed-up, streamline and bring additional smarts to construction projects of all kinds. And considering both the industry’s considerable projected growth and the increasingly urgent need for new housing as the global population continues to shift away from rural areas and toward cities, there’s not just ample room to reimagine the process of how we physically build the places that we work in and call home, much like URBAN-X Cohort 05 company Toggle has done. There are also opportunities to rethink and reimagine the way we design, manage and even inhabit these buildings.
In fact, 2018 Crunchbase data shows that the total amount of venture capital funding secured by nascent American and Canadian construction tech companies increased from $182.7 million in 2013 to $581.6 million in 2017 – that’s a leap of 318 percent. And although – as Crunchbase’s Mary Ann Azevado points out – construction isn’t historically the sexiest of industries or the most eager to embrace new technologies, interest from investors hasn’t waned over the past couple of years.
With such a great emphasis on building faster, smarter and more sustainably with less available space to do so, startups specializing in factory-built, quick-to-install modular structures with diminutive footprints are gaining particular traction.
Kasita, a four-year-old Austin, Texas-based urban housing startup founded by Jeff “Professor Dumpster” Wilson, is one such company to embrace “small-minded” thinking as a way to make the biggest impact.
While green prefab firms such as Los Angeles-based Connect Homes offer sleek, modern dwellings that ranging in size from ultra-compact to relatively palatial, Kasita is dedicated to providing “better square feet, not more square feet.” With just 352 square feet of living space, Kasita’s flagship micro-home packs in a lot. And as urban areas struggle to squeeze in new housing where large multifamily buildings are simply too big to go, these energy-efficient, highly customizable abodes outfitted with the latest smart home technology can be squeezed into tight infill lots, added to suburban backyards and even stacked on existing city rooftops – the sky, it would seem, is the limit.
#resilience (Climate adaptation and mitigation)
From mass displacement precipitated by rising seas to the health-compromising effects of diminished air quality, the societal impact of climate change is as boundless as it is devastating. And with this seemingly insurmountable crisis comes the need for bold, unified action. As France’s Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said of the global climate breakdown at the 2015 World Economic Forum: “It’s a collective endeavor, it’s collective accountability and it may not be too late.”
Stressing that the economic “benefits of climate action are even greater than before,” a major 2018 report released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate notes that fighting climate change could potentially spur $26 trillion in cumulative economic growth through 2030. At the same time, this “opportunity” will generate 65 million new jobs while preventing 700,000 premature deaths associated with air pollution. With sectors such as energy and transportation are poised to see the most sweeping growth, there are also smaller-scale, tech-driven opportunities to be had in the realm of urban climate resilience, mitigation and adaptation.
Of particular need – and opportunity – are scalable, public/private schemes that counter localized air pollution and the Urban Heat Island effect. Both are problem areas with significant impacts on public health; both are ripe for new, unorthodox innovations that complement established tactics like limiting vehicular traffic in congested urban cores, planting more trees and painting rooftops white. One young company that’s garnered attention in this realm is Paris-based Plume Labs. Made commercially available in late 2018, Plume Labs’ signature product, FLOW, is an AI-powered portable urban air quality tracker that enables city-dwellers to monitor (and avoid) areas with diminished air quality. Two years prior, the company announced it had secured $4.5 million in venture capital during its last round of seed funding.
Similarly focused technologies are being sought out in the recently launched NYC Air Quality and Urban Heat Island Innovation Call. A joint effort between by the NYC Mayor’s Office and Access Cities, a five-city alliance with Danish roots focused on sustainable urban development, the challenge welcomes design solutions that help to curb the harmful health impact of air pollution and/or mitigate the Urban Heat Island effect in particularly vulnerable communities. The program also seeks products, services and operational solutions offering similar outcomes.
“Investing in new technologies and fostering partnership with other cities helps us tackle urban air pollution systematically so we can guarantee clean air for all,” says Mark Chambers, Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
One select finalist will have the opportunity to interview for URBAN-X Cohort 07.
#EV (Electric mobility)
With the global electric mobility market forecasted to exceed $60 billion within the next three years (not to mention a notable new player entering the market on the near horizon), industry-wide product innovation including advancements in battery technology continues to accelerate at a healthy clip. And with this, the need for customer-facing services, innovative new business models and the deployment of robust charging infrastructure grows even stronger, particularly in densely populated urban settings.
As McKinsey & Company points out, the automotive industry has been slower to evolve from a consumer experience standpoint than other sectors for a number of reasons. “As a result,” McKinsey explains, “the automotive customer experience can often feel outdated and inferior, especially for younger customers, who seem to be losing interest in car ownership and prefer more convenient and flexible mobility options such as ridesharing, which might lead to totally new mobility concepts.”
Providing e-curious Los Angelenos with flexible, short-term all-electric vehicle leasing options in lieu of full-on car ownership, URBAN-X Cohort 05 startup Borrow is just one company breaking new ground in how the public experiences battery-powered methods of getting around town. And EVs are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
With an eye on providing last-mile transportation solutions while reducing car usage and congestion, numerous cities – for better or worse – have experienced a rise, often overnight, in e-scooters as young but highly visible micro-mobility companies such as Bird ($415 million in venture funding to date including a $300 million Series C round led by Sequoia Capital) and Lime ($765 million in funding with a Bain Capital-led $310 million Series D round wrapping up early this year) lead the charge, quite literally, stateside. Other notable players include Vogo (India), Skip (San Francisco), Beam (Singapore), Emmy (Germany) and the list goes on.
Stae, an URBAN-X Cohort 01 company, is working with a number of cities and municipalities to manage new micro-mobility options such as measuring impact, ensuring user safety and accessibility, and using data-driven insights to anticipate future planning – all critical pieces of getting emissions-free solutions to scale.
Although the urban e-mobility market is a crowded one, there’s still space for bold new solutions that interface with the built environment, the grid and the public sector. And in this particular market – a market that’s altering the very way we experience and interact with the urban built environment on a daily basis – staying in one’s prescribed lane can be dangerous.
If you’re working on a solution that helps to reimagine city life, early applications for URBAN-X Cohort 07 are open now at urban-x.com/apply.
— Matt Hickman