Where the future of urbanity is born. URBAN-X.
URBAN-X, the startup platform for founders reimagining city life, was founded by MINI to support companies that aim to improve urban life through bold technology solutions. The innovations developed by the startups range from location analysis for EV chargers to a marketplace for surplus restaurant food, extensive infrastructure for drones, climate change-fighting robots and more.
One of the experts who helps to decide which urban tech companies should be invited into the 20-week programme is Miriam Roure. Barcelona-born Roure began her career as an architect after studying at Harvard and Cornell universities. She quickly became interested in how digital technologies shape the way humans interact with each other and their environment. After a stint as a researcher at the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Roure joined URBAN-X as its programme director five years ago.
What drew you to tackle urban challenges by working at the startup accelerator founded by MINI?
While I was at MIT, I worked with large corporations and city government partners to research how data and sensor technologies had the potential to radically transform how cities operate. There was a clear need for new solutions! But neither of these organisations was equipped to develop them at the necessary speed. URBAN-X is built precisely for that: it supports early-stage founders developing new and bold urban technologies. In its bottom-up approach, URBAN-X is able to accelerate the development and implementation of these solutions. URBAN-X focuses on how these technologies not only impact how people live, play and work in cities, but also how they impact our climate future.
You have called cities a unique environment. How so?
Cities are about people coming together and connecting with other people. The higher the density of people, the higher the degree of innovation, the number of patents being filed, and so on. Cities are a breeding ground for creativity and innovation.
When people live together it optimises resources and infrastructure in great and efficient ways, making cities the most sustainable way to live.
Cities are also under a lot of pressure, from providing affordable housing, to infrastructure issues, to the effects of climate change. How can a startup accelerator like URBAN-X make a difference?
Just as cities are full of innovation, cities are full of challenges too. For example, 70% of our carbon emissions come from urban settings. Social inequality rates are at a record high level, at least in the US. Interestingly, the current pandemic has led some people to trade urban centres for less dense areas. However, we at URBAN-X would argue that it is time to double down on cities as centres of creativity to address some of the most significant challenges in the world today.
What do you mean by that exactly?
When people live together it optimises resources and infrastructure in great and efficient ways, making cities the most sustainable way to live. Furthermore, technologies open up opportunities to tackle inequality. For example, one topic that we are exploring is new mobility services and how the infrastructure for autonomous vehicles is being established. These have the potential to transform our social fabric. I like the idea of tipping points. They embody the notion that small changes can build to create an important wave of positive change for society.
URBAN-X has been around for five years. How are things going?
We have invested in close to 80 companies and completed our 10th programme. We are very proud that we have built a community of stellar founders. Some of our startups were nothing more than two people and a deck or a presentation of their idea when we first met. Today, these are fully-fledged companies with dozens, if not hundreds, of employees. It is enormously rewarding to see these companies flourish. Personally, I derive a lot of satisfaction working with these incredible entrepreneurs. It also provides a real pulse on where technological developments and opportunities are happening. Selecting companies for the programme and working with the founders are two of the most enjoyable aspects of my role at URBAN-X.
statistically, most startups will not succeed. Because of this, founders need immense optimism to bring their vision to life.
Do you have a favourite startup?
We don’t like to point out favourites because we have a strong relationships with our founders. That said, it feels like the true value of supporting and investing in urban tech companies really shows itself when a startup not only responds to a massive market need but also develops the technology or a product that can provide real impact. One example is a company called cove.tool that develops methods to cut emissions from the design phase of buildings. There is also Mobilyze, a company whose mission is to improve the infrastructure for charging electric vehicles. Another more recent URBAN-X startup called LimeLoop also stands out – they are building an end-to-end platform for sustainable shipping. I recently moved back to New York City. When I see how so many empty delivery boxes are piled up in the streets on trash day, I can relate to how absurd our current packaging and shipping system is. There’s a big need to rethink that and create a more closed-loop model!
What makes startups succeed or fail?
As an accelerator that invests in early stage companies, we have found that the relationship between the founders is key. We look for a great team and for founders who are passionate about what they are building. You can tell when someone is really excited about their enterprise and understands it in depth. But statistically, most startups will not succeed. Because of this, founders need immense optimism to bring their vision to life. Founders need to carry their energy through as they build a team, build the solution, acquire customers, and so on. As a society, we should encourage people to build their own solutions and bring them to market. Many of the founders we invest in come from diverse backgrounds. It’s so valuable to be able to show young women or people of colour that this can work!
You once said: “We shape what we create, but the things we create also shape us”. What did you mean by that?
We tend to think of our actions as unidirectional – from us to the other. But in fact the relationship is completely reflective. Everything we do impacts us back, either directly or indirectly. Even if you choose not to do something, you are still being impacted by it. We cannot escape this reality and I think it is good to be aware of it.
One of the remarkable things about URBAN-X is the diverse nature of the startups that the accelerator supports. Apart from mobility, it invests in everything from real estate technology to public health to energy and to food. These are pretty far removed from what one would normally expect from a car company.
MINI’s strength lies in its ingenuity. At URBAN-X, we try to follow that same path when we look at solutions that tackle the challenges of cities. The first MINI designers created a great car solution for urban living. If you’re just looking at mobility innovations, you might be missing out on many other opportunities that are part of the city ecosystem. Also, the different challenges of city life are becoming more and more intertwined. We see trends that go from one industry to another. Things move very quickly. It is great to have a pulse on what is happening from a broader perspective, not just mobility, and being able to tap into other sectors that are part of this.
My favourite town is Barcelona. It’s a very democratic city, entirely built for people.
Every month, about 6 million people around the world move to a city. Do you see this trend slowing as the pandemic is changing how people view cities?
No. I think the first reaction for many people was “Wow, now that we work remotely this opens up a different way of doing things. I don’t need to be at a desk from nine to five anymore. I can manage my personal life and my professional life in a much more integrated way.” For some, this has meant that they can live somewhere else entirely – in places where you would usually go on holiday, for instance. But people are also starting to realise that they miss other people, they miss the serendipity of encounters, they miss the opportunities that cities bring, they miss the messiness and inventiveness of city life. And with climate change becoming more urgent, cities have never been more relevant.
Do you have a favourite city?
Without a doubt Barcelona, the city where I grew up. Barcelona is a very democratic city, entirely built for people. The buildings are at a height where you get sun on the pavements, and as a result there are tons of street terraces. It has mountains, parks and beaches. It is a city rooted in a culture of entrepreneurship and commerce. It is incredibly local and global at the same time. Barcelona knows how to celebrate individual expression and collective well-being. There is an incredible pride in being from Barcelona.
What’s next for URBAN-X and MINI?
We have a ton of plans coming up, but we can’t announce them yet! So for now we are celebrating what we have achieved so far. For example, two of our startups were acquired by larger companies. One is called Blueprint Power, which has developed a technology that helps turn commercial buildings into virtual power plants that are able to trade green energy through cloud-based software. It was sold to the gas company BP. Another of our startups, Evolve Energy, was sold to the UK renewable energy retailer Octopus Energy. The company passes on wholesale power prices to residential customers and helps them use smart home technology to use the best timing and save up to 50% on their electricity costs. Two really great exits!
URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Built by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup programme moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. Core to 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 premier educational content for a global network of founders.
Over the course of 20 weeks, they offer a custom-tailored journey to get to ‘product-market fit’ through an intensive and immersive programme, both virtually and at our 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.