Focus on the future: The positive power of urban tech startups.
Sarah Schappert and Johan Schwind from URBAN-X, MINI’s startup platform, know the startup scene like nobody else. We talked to the experts about the importance and fostering of urban and sustainable innovations.
They work together closely, even though the Atlantic separates them: Sarah Schappert and Johan Schwind are the minds behind MINI’s startup platform URBAN-X. MINI launched the platform in 2016 to support young companies that want to create unconventional solutions for sustainable cities. While Sarah, a Munich native, looks for exciting startup ecosystems in Europe and Asia as Director Europe, her colleague Johan, Managing Director in New York City, is responsible for mentoring the startups and working with local experts. Schappert and Schwind share the belief that new businesses can help shape the cities of tomorrow with their visionary and courageous ideas. During MINI Impact Program, we talked to them about new content, the long-term approach of URBAN-X and why startups are more important than ever.
Sarah and Johan, you are both city folk, privately and professionally: What is the very first thing you miss when you’re away from your city for a longer period?
SARAH SCHAPPERT: I travel a lot and therefore I am surrounded by many impressions, so I miss the calm and relaxed atmosphere of Munich. Especially the Maxvorstadt where I live, enjoy walking and cycling….
JOHAN SCHWIND: For me, it's the other way around. When I'm not in New York, I always miss that energy. I enjoy being out in nature but then after two weeks, I miss the buzz of the city.
And when was the last time you were both annoyed by your cities?
JOHAN: Oh, every day! (laughs) That's just the trade-off in a big city. A lot of people in a very tight space. In New York, you always run into problems with parking, traffic and getting annoyed with other road users.
SARAH: In Munich, the stores close quite early, which sometimes annoys me. The regulations are stricter.
URBAN-X, the startup platform by MINI, is all about solving city-related problems: from traffic bottlenecks to air pollution to energy prices. Would you describe yourselves as problem solvers?
SARAH: I think the term ‘problem solver’ is only half true. We are more the enablers of problem solving, aren’t we Johan?
JOHAN: That's how I see it too. We are a platform that helps startups by providing expertise and resources. In addition to tackling everyday problems, this involves a lot of hidden issues and solutions that people may not be aware of right away. For example, what if people could grow certain foods at home in a fully automated way? If you scale something like that, there would be less need for delivery services and that means also less traffic.
Johan, you've been with URBAN-X from the beginning. Since 2016, around 80 startups have gone through the program. When you look back at the past six years, how has URBAN-X changed?
JOHAN: When we launched URBAN-X back then, we wanted to tackle the full range of urban problems – climate change and sustainability were obviously part of that. But those topics have become an absolute focus in the years since. You can see this in the fact that more and more founders are developing innovations in these field. Cities play a key role in the climate conversation. Not only because they are exposed to greater risks due to population density, and because many cities are located on the water, but also because cities are now the biggest drivers of emissions globally.
SARAH: We also now talk more about “urban tech” than we did at the beginning. For us, urban tech describes startup technology companies that directly improve city life and the sustainability of cities. Unlike smart city technologies, urban tech startups do not primarily sell their products to city governments, but rather consumers and businesses.
Why do you prefer the term urban tech to smart city?
JOHAN: The original idea of the smart city was to bring sensors into the city to measure and optimise everything. That's a very efficiency-driven approach, which implies that a city that doesn’t have these sensors and data is not smart. We don’t see it that way. On top of that, smart city in many countries means surveillance. We don't support that.
Are there any developments at URBAN-X that have particularly surprised you?
JOHAN: It’s extremely difficult to sell innovations directly to city governments. This is mainly due to their complex purchasing processes. We do have a handful of startups that have succeeded in doing this but with most of the startups, we had to find other ways to bring the innovation into the city.
SARAH: An interesting example of this is our startup Oonee, which provides sheds called pods for bicycles. One problem was that the city of New York required a bathroom for each pod. But that would have made the whole thing much more complicated. Oonee managed to get the regulations rewritten.
URBAN-X started as an accelerator, now it’s a platform with three pillars. In addition to the accelerator in New York, there is MINI Impact and a Growth Program. How did this expansion come about?
SARAH: A lot of things happened at once. At the beginning of this year, we got the new venture partner JVP, a venture capital fund which focuses on startups that are already further along in their development. That’s how the idea for the Growth Program came up. There was also the demand from the various countries where MINI is represented to be more involved in URBAN-X. But that is difficult to do if there are no local startups. That’s why we created the MINI Impact Program, through which we scout idea stage startup teams internationally.
You two work closely together, even though you’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean. How would you describe each other’s role?
JOHAN: Sarah is responsible for URBAN-X in Europe and Asia, and she is also the link between URBAN-X and MINI – two enormously important roles. This means that Sarah scouts exciting people and ideas in the European and Asian startup ecosystems, which suits her perfectly as a networker.
And what does Johan do?
SARAH: Johan has worked very closely with the startups in New York over the past years, which has had a very noticeable impact on their products. It’s crucial work. In his new role as Managing Director, Johan is responsible for the URBAN-X team, he is spokesperson for the platform and works with our experts-in-residence.
Getting a spot in the accelerator isn’t easy. URBAN-X accepts only 1.5 percent of applications. On the other hand, 86 percent of the startups that went through the program are still in operation today. How important is longevity for URBAN-X?
JOHAN: That is the basis for all our work. The goal is to give companies the right tools so they can scale and be successful in the long term. The technological innovations that are developed here in New York should therefore also be applicable to other cities. We don’t want one-off solutions, so we filter heavily in the selection process from the start.
SARAH: We want URBAN-X to leave a lasting impact. That’s exactly how it is with MINI, where the goal is to become fully electric starting 2030. Most of our startups are growing rather steadily and slowly. This is not least because many of the startups operate in the business-to-business or business-to-government sector, which means they sell their products to companies or authorities and not just directly to consumers.
There is another way: you could support higher number of startups a bit less and hope for unicorn success....
SARAH: Well, we don’t fight against unicorn success!
URBAN-X is also a think tank for MINI. We want to find out what works where and how.
JOHAN: That’s right, we’ll take that too. But in general, it’s more important to us that we bring something unique to the startup world with URBAN-X. Since MINI places the highest value on product development and design, it was clear from the start that we would work very hands-on with the startups and provide a unique curriculum for each team. That only works with a small group.
Let’s talk about URBAN-X’s new Impact Program for early-stage startups on an international level. In the first iteration, there are four teams from France, Italy, Singapore and Indonesia. Talk us through the selection process.
SARAH: It was crucial for us to get the word out about the new program in the individual countries where MINI is represented and figure out who wants to be part of the MINI Impact Program, and then to find ways to scout startups. In Italy it worked through a conference format, in France there was a big call for application and startups pitch their ideas. That happened in collaboration with the city of Paris. In Singapore, we tried it only through digital communication. However, we realised that this would not be enough because you need to dive deeper into the startup ecosystems and have direct support by startup institutions. So, we compiled a list of startups in each of the countries from which we then selected four finalists: FabBRICK from France, wiseair from Italy, Humfree from Singapore, and Dulang from Indonesia (see ABOUT MINI IMPACT PROGRAM). They will also be on-site at the final week in New York City – working together with the NYC team in an intensive sprint. Before, everything was done remotely.
How did people receive the MINI Impact Program in each country?
SARAH: Pretty enthusiastically due to the fact colleagues at MINI on the ground were part of the selection process and got to meet the founders. The nice thing is that it made it even clearer for them what URBAN-X does.
Sarah mentioned it before: The experts-in-residence, meaning your team on site that advises the startups, will also play a significant role in the new Impact Program.
JOHAN: The fact that our five experts work so incredibly closely with the founders is indeed one of the special features of URBAN-X. It’s not just about direct help during the weeks of the program, but also a plan for the next twelve to eighteen months. In doing so, we deal with questions such as: what resources will I need in the future? How do I market my product? What design and branding do I choose and how do I best implement it? How do I optimise the software? What criteria do I use to select new employees? Finding answers to these questions is not only elementary, this form of tailor-made support is special at URBAN-X.
SARAH: What’s interesting is that when we started URBAN-X, we thought it was essential to be in the same room together all the time. The pandemic made us to shift our perspective there. Now we have a well-working remote program. We have proven that we can work with teams globally. When the four teams from the Impact Program go back to their countries, we will conduct case studies, that is look very closely at how things are going on the ground. In that sense, URBAN-X is also a think tank for MINI. We want to find out what works where and how.
Do the startups also leave an impact on the MINI brand?
SARAH: That’s what we want. The more people at MINI who are in touch with our startups, the greater the inspiration and impact for the company. That came to light very nicely in Singapore, where direct contact between MINI colleagues and the founders of Humfree sparked new energy, enthusiasm and creativity for URBAN-X.
The startup world is still pretty homogeneous. How do you break that up?
JOHAN: At URBAN-X we have an idea of what makes a good city. Diversity is key. From our URBAN-X Impact Study, which we published in September 2022, we know that the proportion of URBAN-X companies, from 2016 until now, with at least one person of colour as co-founder is 43%. 35% of URBAN-X companies have at least one woman as co-founder. Our goal is to support female founders and founders with diverse backgrounds that are otherwise underrepresented to make the startup world look a little bit more like the cities we live in.
ABOUT MINI IMPACT PROGRAM.
With its MINI Impact Program, URBAN-X expands its platform and becomes even more international. For the first round in Autumn 2022, four countries – France, Italy, Singapore and Indonesia – were chosen as sites from which to scout a young team of innovators in the field of urban tech. Four startups seeking to improve city life had been selected to join the program. They are fine-tuning their ideas together with the experts of URBAN-X. The program culminates in one week at URBAN-X in New York City.
These four startups are:
The problem? Every year, millions of tons of clothing end up in the bin. This is not only due to consumption behaviour, but above all to the production mechanisms in the textile industry. In most companies, overproduction and waste are factored in, which unnecessarily pollutes the environment. According to studies, the fashion industry causes around ten percent of all global CO2 emissions.
The solution? The French startup FabBRICK turns textile waste into building materials. Specifically, it works by collecting a retailer’s unused fabrics and – after thorough testing – forming brick-sized blocks, which the retailer can then use as interior design elements. The blocks can be used to assemble tables, benches, cabinets and walls, among other things – in other words, an entire design system. FabBRICK is now trying to scale this process. If you want to learn more about FabBRICK, click here.
The problem? Traffic and mobility have changed enormously in recent years. One outcome of this is that in every major city, numerous e-scooter services now compete with each other. While this has increased flexibility for residents, they’re often considered a nuisance. The scooters are regularly left lying on the pavement or even on the street, blocking the way for other road users. This could be attributed to the fact that the vehicles in the shared economy are only rented and used for a short period of time.
The solution? For the founding team of Humfree from Singapore, it was clear that micromobility is crucial for the cities of the future – but the status quo is inadequate. Humfree is therefore working on a system in which people own the e-scooters instead of just renting them. Humfree is still in the early stages of their development and hopes URBAN-X’s Impact Program will provide inspiration for design, among other things.
The problem? Air quality is often poor, especially in big cities. Air pollution is one of the main causes of lung disease such as asthma. However, it is difficult for most people to understand exactly how air pollution affects our health. There is a lack of accessible information and data. Municipalities are usually aware of the problem, but find it difficult to do anything about it in practice.
The solution? Italian startup wiseair has developed a system for cities that can be used to track air quality for each neighborhood. In addition to the sensors, which are solar-powered and can be installed anywhere, wiseair also offers the necessary software to collect and analyze the data. wiseair already works together with numerous municipalities in Italy. If you want to learn more about wiseair, click here.
The problem? In the US, just 15 percent of e-waste is recycled. In many other countries, the percentage is even lower. The lack of recycling creates a gigantic environmental burden. Heavy metals constantly enter and destroy ecosystems. The fumes from incineration are also dangerous. Valuable resources are systematically wasted. Instead of dismantling broken devices and reusing components, the whole item ends up being thrown away.
The solution? The Indonesian startup Dulang has set itself the goal of simplifying the recycling of e-waste and making it financially attractive. To this end, it is developing a platform through which consumers can register their old electronic devices – from mobile phones to razors – instead of just throwing them into the trash. Dulang takes the devices for a certain value and repairs them, then either resells or donates them. This can create a sustainable system, incentivising recycling. If you want to learn more about Dulang, click here.
URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Founded by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup program moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs from Seed to Series B with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. At the heart of its platform, URBAN-X offers world-class engineering and design resources; industry-leading investment capital; a global network of investors, policymakers, corporate strategies and end-customers; and exclusive educational content for a global network of founders.
They offer a custom-tailored journey to get product-market fit through an intensive and immersive program, both virtually and at the headquarters in New Lab in Brooklyn, New York.
URBAN-X works closely with BMW iVentures and BMW Startup Garage to connect teams to internal resources where appropriate. If you want to learn more about URBAN-X, click here.