Mobilizing Entrepreneurs To Make An Urban Impact
Having trouble finding a parking space? San Francisco-based Park Please takes the AirBNB model and applies it to help frustrated city drivers find parking spaces.
Longing for a coffee shop or organic food store in your neighborhood? Washington, DC-based Popularise allows individuals to vocalize support for and invest in local real estate projects.
Unhappy with the food options in your child’s school? Oakland-based Revolution Foods provides healthy, fresh, and affordable meals to school districts in over 20 cities across the US.
Our goal is to build a pipeline of companies supporting innovation in US cities.From Zipcar to Recyclebank, entrepreneurs are developing creative solutions to urban problems in their own backyards. Their innovative consumer products and services have the potential to scale massively from city to city – and we believe that there should be more of them tackling urban problems.
But these urban impact entrepreneurs face a unique set of challenges. In July 2012, our company, Tumml, conducted a survey among 106 early-stage entrepreneurs – about a third of whom focused on urban innovation. The results shed light on many of the hurdles facing urban impact entrepreneurs:
- Urban impact entrepreneurs do not have sufficient access to capital: Early stage companies focusing on urban innovation are less than half as likely as their traditional counterparts to receive seed stage funding. Even when normalizing for demographic factors such as number of entrepreneurial ventures and educational background, 33 percent of traditional entrepreneurs were able to secure venture capital or angel investment, compared with only 15 percent of the urban impact entrepreneurs.
- Urban impact entrepreneurs are not getting the right kind of mentorship and support: Urban innovators are nearly twice as likely to seek out access to government and civic leaders (30% urban impact vs. 18% traditional). Although they are not looking to get hired by government, these entrepreneurs still need help navigating the local regulatory environment. For example, a bike share company needs help securing public space permits for their racks.
In short, financial and mentorship challenges are setting back a major movement in urban impact entrepreneurship. And, until more attention is paid to these upstarts, we are not going to see massive urban innovation coming from the entrepreneurship community.
So, you may wonder, why is the lack of urban impact entrepreneurship a problem? Shouldn’t we count on government to take on city issues? In the current economic climate, we cannot rely on government alone to tackle our urban problems. More than half of US cities canceled or delayed infrastructure projects last year and 2012 will be the fifth straight year of declining city revenues. These cuts are having profoundly negative impacts on the safety, education, mobility, and health of the 81 percent of Americans who live in and around cities.
What about large companies? Aren’t they making cities a better place to live? Absolutely. There are a few large companies thinking about smart cities and the promise of urban innovation. Meeting of the Minds is born out of the idea that governments, companies, and policy advocates can come together to enhance urban communities.
Nevertheless, engaging the entrepreneurship community is essential to move the needle on urban innovation. Entrepreneurs are disruptive and nimble, and they are the ones who are going to develop innovative consumer products and services to tackle problems related to education, health, transportation, security, energy, and civic participation.
So we are proposing something new.
In 2013, we will formally launch Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator. Our goal is to build a pipeline of companies supporting innovation in US cities by targeting “smart cities” sectors like transportation and education (we’re looking for the next Alta Bicycle Share and Neighborland). We will provide a home for urban impact entrepreneurs in the same way that RockHealth does for digital health companies and Code for America does for Gov 2.0 entrepreneurs.
More specifically, Tumml will invite promising young companies to spend four months working in our offices. During that time, Tumml provides them with a customized education curriculum, legal services, access to top-flight mentors and support staff, as well as opportunities to connect with civic leaders. What kind of mentors are we talking about? We’ve signed up government leaders from across the country like the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Innovation, successful urban impact entrepreneurs like the founders of Revolution Foods, innovative policy leaders like the Initiative For a Competitive Inner City, and investors who can help these companies go from conception to full-fledged roll out. Tumml will also grant each company in its accelerator program $20,000 in seed funding.
Through Tumml, we hope to bridge an important gap in funding and mentorship so that entrepreneurs can play an active role in urban innovation. And we encourage you to start your own urban impact company, support your local urban entrepreneurs, and be part of changing the landscapes of our cities for the better.