Mobilizing Entrepreneurs To Make An Urban Impact

By Clara Brenner and Julie Lein

Julie Lein and Clara Brenner are the Co-Founders of Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator with the mission of empowering entrepreneurs to solve urban problems.  A nonprofit, Tumml's goal is to identify and support the next generation of Zipcars and Revolution Foods. Through a customized, four month program, Tumml invites early stage companies into its office space to receive hands-on support, seed funding, and services to help grow their businesses and make significant impact on their communities.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] “More Gloom Lies Ahead for Cities, Report Says,” New York Times, 27 September 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/us/cities-face-more-budget-problems-report-says.html?_r=0

[2] “2010 Census Urban Area Facts,” US Census Bureau Website, 26 March 2012: http://www.census.gov/geo/www/ua/uafacts.html.

Discussion

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13 Comments

  1. Sharmeen

    Great article!

    Reply
  2. Larisa Lein

    Great article. Good luck with your endeavors.
    It’s will help to get started and guide through.

    Reply
  3. Veronica Zaltsberg

    Enjoyed your article very much. It is pleasure to see smart, educated women bring a bright ideas for new generation. Good luck!

    Reply
  4. Lamees Hamada

    Love this!!

    Reply
  5. Christina Kelleher

    Amazing stuff, Julie Lein and Clara Brenner! Raising critical issues for urban impact entrepreneurs and the important role Tumml is playing in supporting them!

    Reply
  6. Gautham Iyer

    Great article ladies! With our cities and infrastructure continuing to age and depreciate, city population concentration continuing to increase, and without funds to fund urban renewal, startups such as the ones you’ll be incubating will provide new ideas to reshape the urban landscape. The challenge, of course, is financing these types of, typically more capital intensive companies, while their ideas take root, and at the same time, getting the buy-in of the city where they operate. This may require greater innovation on the funding side, which is something to start thinking about – I look forward to hearing more about not only the urban innovators, but how Tumml will innovate to help them!

    Reply
  7. Michael Wu

    Absolutely inspiring stuff. Helping innovative urban entrepreneurs overcome the barriers to entry is such a worthy cause. As any city-dweller can tell you, there’s no shortage of problems to fix or people eager to fix them. But so many great ideas get bogged down in their execution. I couldn’t be more excited to see the solutions that Tumml is able to bring to fruition!

    Reply
  8. Jeff Phillips

    Wow, really interesting. I have witnessed some of the great work that urban impact startups have had, but I didn’t recognize the increasingly significant issues with funding and support that so many of them face. I want to get more involved in some capacity, so I signed up on your website. Thank you for starting something that will pay dividends for all of us.

    Reply
  9. Brian Dean

    What a fantastic article highlighting an underserved group of entrepreneurs tackling important urban issues that will have far-reaching impact as the world’s population continues to urbanize. The unique early-stage funding and bureaucratic administrative assistance needs facing city-centric startups are not being met head-on by the current accelerator crop and your program is exactly what these nascent urban ventures need! Please keep me updated as you cultivate your first class of entrepreneurs.

    Reply
  10. Nick

    This is a very important topic, and clearly needs addressing. The survey results speak volumes about the opportunity for a new market entrant and the potential impact of such an initiative. Its impressive to see the government leaders you have on board in such a short time. I am excited to hear more about the progress of Tumml and will continue to follow the business.

    Reply
  11. Sylvia Dizon

    Bravo, Tumml! The urban impact space has such potential and is so worthy of attention but, as you’ve pointed out here, has not been the friendliest space for entrepreneurs. Glad to see you addressing this gap. Good luck!

    Reply
  12. Omar Mitchell

    What immediately impresses me about Tumml is their focus on the entrepreneurial ecosystem needed to get these types of ventures off the ground and achieve realistic scale. Urban innovators are tasked with not only finding funding sources but also with understanding and engaging a much wider sphere of influence to get their product or service to market — from local and municipal agencies to perhaps corporate sponsors (I’m thinking of NYC Citi Bike, which is privately sponsored by Citi and MasterCard and privately operated by NYC Bike Share LLC, with no public funding). Providing a one-stop shop to access public sector resources, private sector funding or partnerships and quality mentorship/incubation would be tremendously useful for urban innovators. Great idea Clara Brenner and Julie Lein!

    Reply
  13. Robby

    Tumml is fantastic – excited to see what they can accomplish in the future!

    Reply

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