URBAN-X — MINI-BMW's city accelerator

With the announcement of its sixth cohort, URBAN-X, the MINI-backed accelerator is supporting new ideas and innovations to improve city life

Urban-X has supported ideas from street sensors to road pricing solutions; smart trash bins to urban transport, says Micah Kotch.
Urban-X has supported ideas from street sensors to road pricing solutions; smart trash bins to urban transport, says Micah Kotch.

The drive to find new solutions to city problems has seen the launch of dozens of accelerator programs worldwide. Whether they are steered by education establishments, tech hotspots, industry alliances or government agencies, accelerators are firmly established as part of the innovation landscape.
One of the most notable accelerators with a specific brief to address city issues is URBAN-X — founded by the car company MINI-BMW. The accelerator, which launched in 2016, is focused on finding solutions for challenges to city life, and has added over 50 startups to its network.
In June, the sixth round of URBAN-X was announced, with seven startups bringing ideas for emergency response, building design and energy management, traffic safety, exercise and food waste reduction, to the program. Smart Cities spoke to Micah Kotch, Managing Director, URBAN-X, to find out more about the program.

Why has a car company launched an urban accelerator?
Micah Kotch: Recognizing that the evolution of cities is inclusive of mobility, but that it also extends to interlinked domains, MINI launched URBAN-X in 2016 as part of its Innovation and Strategy practice focused on improving city life.
MINI has always been a quintessentially urban brand, and recognizes that the future of the car and the future of cities are inextricably linked.
Throughout the 20-week accelerator program, startups have access to MINI experts who guide them in design, manufacturing, engineering, marketing, community building, branding and more as they work to build and scale their companies.
URBAN-X now has 37 companies in its portfolio and engages with the brightest minds using technology to solve for some of the most complex challenges of city life — from mobility, energy consumption, infrastructure, housing, food waste, water and more.

What are the main aims of URBAN-X?
Kotch: The main aim is to identify the best startups globally who are reimagining city life, and provide them the resources they need to level up. URBAN-X provides 20 immersive weeks of customer development, product development, network-building and expert guidance for startups — all in preparation for fundraising.
The program culminates in a Demo Day, where each team presents their solutions to a room full of investors, influencers, academics, leaders from the public and private sectors, media and more. Since founding URBAN-X, 85% of our teams have gone on to raise their next round of capital.

How do you define ‘urban’?
Kotch: ‘Urban’ encapsulates a wide range of things. For us, it’s focusing on companies and solutions that can have a real impact on improving quality of life in dense urban environments. We work with companies in areas ranging from real estate and construction, mobility and transportation, energy, food, water, waste and everything in between.
We see a lot of really interesting companies cross our path. When deciding to offer a company a spot in our program, we try to understand who the team is, why they’re working on the problem they’ve selected, and can we help them level up over five months?
We love founders who are in love with their problem more than their solution. If they have customers who love their solution, that’s a good sign.
We also evaluate each applicant by the amount of impact the company can have (can their solution scale to 100 cities over the next five years?), who is on the team, what experiences they have, the company’s approach to urban problems, the type and amount of competition the company will face and how much risk is associated with their proposed solutions. We look for founders who have a growth mindset and learn quickly, who are relentless, and who are deliberate about their culture.
Are there any areas you haven’t seen ideas for yet that you would be interested in?
Kotch: As an accelerator based in NYC working with companies that are reimagining city life, there’s really not many we haven’t seen. A few technologies that I’m really excited about are proptech and construction tech, which are helping to identify new ways to build and maintain infrastructure; transactive energy and the future of the electrical grid; as well as the ascendance of EV access and electric mobility we’re just beginning to see.  We’re also really excited about teams solving for water scarcity and flood mitigation.

What does the URBAN-X network do outside of the accelerator program?
Kotch: We’re very focused on providing high value-add for our teams.  Our network includes other founders, investors, policymakers, and people working to change cities as part of their daily routine.  We also work with our colleagues internally at MINI, and BMW as they roll out new solutions for electric mobility.

Does MINI invest in any of the startups for itself?
Kotch: In some cases where there is a strategic fit, BMW iVentures may make follow-on investments in our portfolio companies, as they did with Lunewave in Cohort 03.

Do you have a favourite idea or startup from among those that have completed the program so far?
Kotch: No favorites. All the founders in our portfolio are working to make cities more liveable, enjoyable, and efficient, and we love them equally.

Does URBAN-X work with government partners at all?
Kotch: There are no formal government partners, however, we engage deeply with a number of global government leaders, from Heads of Transportation Departments, to Chief Digital Officers, to various agency heads. We take an approach that values the input and perspective of the public sector, even when they are not direct customers.

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