BMW’s MINI auto brand is in the midst of opening its A/D/O public design studio in Brooklyn, as MINI’s head of brand strategy and business innovation, Esther Bahne, recently discussed here. But the space will do more than serve as a hub for designers and other creatives who want to collaborate, and will do more than promote MINI as a thought and action leader among influencers in the design community—or invite the public to its restaurant, store and maker facilities.
A critical role that A/D/O will play in addition to hosting designers in residence, speakers and events will be serving as the headquarters for Urban-X, the startup accelerator that was co-founded one year ago by MINI in partnership with HAX Futures, a hardware-focused accelerator backed by global VC firm SOSV.
With Urban-X, MINI and HAX are specifically harnessing venture capital and private equity to invest in new mobility services applications. Startups working with Urban-X to date include the local farming-focused Farmshelf, intelligent bike helmet-maker Brooklyness, geo-data-cruncher Numina, sustainable recycler Industrial/Organic and smart intercom-maker Nello.
The stated mission of Urban-X: “We believe in a world of abundant, accessible technology that connects and empowers urban life. We believe every city will be a platform upon which the tools of the metropolis will be built. We are Engineering the City as a Service to meet the challenges of rapid global urbanization. We will achieve this via hardware and software that provide necessary infrastructure, technologies, products, and services.”
While settling into its new home at A/D/O, Urban-X is still seeking startups that are focused on intelligent cities, urban hyper-growth and society-scale challenges, including:
- Technologies that improve public space, urban safety, and urban quality of life;
- Solutions for improved civic infrastructure, commerce and access to resources such as utilities and food;
- Technologies that empower the sharing economy and facilitate better communication between neighbors, government, and business;
- Innovative ways to reduce congestion and improve people’s experience getting from A to B.
Along with access to designers, events and the makerspace at A/D/O, the Urban-X team will host its second cohort of eight to ten startups addressing those needs at MINI’s new Brooklyn hub in February, with the goals of nurturing the startups while giving MINI an edge on potentially significant innovations in the crucial arena of urban mobility. (Applications are being accepted for cohort 3, which kicks off in May.)
“We’re seeing that the newly emerging urban model demands products and also services to be built for and around it,” Micah Kotch told brandchannel. Kotch, the managing director of Urban-X, launched the startup accelerator initiative within the BMW Group as part of the automaker’s Impact Ventures Team focused on creating more efficient and liveable cities.
“If you think about the city as an operating system, we want to help build a city that becomes a service and really one that is very much citizen- and person-focused,” he added, “and leverage what the company does incredibly well, which is design, engineering and brand, and really help startups that are solving these incredibly challenging problems around cities, and bring their ideas to life.”
brandchannel talked with Kotch about Urban-X, MINI and the future of innovation in urban mobility.
bc: What is MINI’s relationship with Urban-X?
Micah Kotch (right): Urban-X is a joint venture between MINI and SOSV, a global venture fund with $250 million of assets under management. They run programs that are focused on accelerating startups all around the world. SOSV has run programs focused on companies in biotech, in food and hardware, and we created Urban-X really to invest and accelerate startups that would focus on intelligent cities, urban hyper-growth and society-scale challenges, such as the lack of affordable housing.
bc: What is your personal interest in this area?
Kotch: I’ve been working with startup companies since the late ‘90s. I was an entrepreneur and was living and working in China. I started in the telecom industry including games on phones. Around 2005 I started working on sustainability and clean energy issues at Pratt Institute in New York. I helped create a design incubator for sustainable innovation. In 2009, right after the financial crisis, I worked with the Bloomberg administration to create New York City’s first sponsored tech incubator. That program created more than 1,000 jobs and $250 milllion in capital. More recently, I was working on grid change in New York, on making the electricity grid more resilient after Hurricane Sandy.
bc: Do you see progress in the auto industry in being able to tap into startups in the way Urban-X is?
Kotch: What I’m seeing now in the automotive industry is what I saw working in telecom and in energy-regulated electricity.
In all three cases you have had tech as a disruptive force. In the telecom space it was data and the iPhone. In the energy space, it’s been the declining cost of solar and storage. And in the auto industry, it’s Uber and Lyft and autonomous. And in all three industries you also see changing customer expectations—most customers are asking for more, and they are not satisfied with the status quo. As a result you have incumbents who are looking at the need for business model innovation, and that’s fascinating.
Automotive OEMS are very much looking at mobility as a service and as different mechanisms to deliver value for their customers, which have nothing to do with selling a car.
bc: So what is the specific mission of Urban-X in achieving all this for MINI?
Kotch: MINI is an urban brand. It started in the ’50s with rethinking the role of the car in the city. It was a design solution to a particularly urban problem. The company is recognizing that the city is really changing dramatically and that efficient, well-designed mobility solutions are an important subset of what makes us happy, productive people. It’s one element that really needs to work right, where people have experiences that they love in the city. So the company is looking to deliver ‘urban essentials’ to its customers and also to others to help maximize their experiences.
bc: What is Urban-X doing that MINI couldn’t accomplish on its own?
Kotch: MINI really strives to deliver relevant urban essentials for its customers and has since the 1950s: a car that people around the world love that does an amazing job at creatively using space. There’s also a recognition that once the MINI is parked, life continues.
The company recognizes that it’s incredibly important for them to help promising startups fulfill their potential and bring their ideas to market. There’s a recognition that startups are not only a great way to de-risk public benefit but they’re a great way to help us begin to outsource R&D. They bring an entirely different mindset and culture and are not bound by the same constraints that internal people could be bound by.
Another thing that we are doing, which is a differentiator, is we are bringing designers and engineers from MINI and BMW to work shoulder-to-shoulder with these companies during the four months that they’re part of Urban-X.