City-Scale Startups Wanted

URBAN-X is an opportunity for all of us to think at a truly enormous scale — beyond individual consumers and beyond businesses. Our goal is to take what we’ve learned about accelerating hardware and software startups with HAX and SOSV and apply those learnings to city-scale and society-scale problems. In that process, we’ll be re-imagining the places in which we live and the daily environments that surround us. We want to use this experience to address problems like overcrowding, energy production and storage, mass transit, homelessness, safety, and myriad systemic quality of life issues. Issues that affect everyone. We’re excited about this. And obviously, we’ve done a lot of thinking about the kind of companies we’ll be working with.

What follows us a list of topics we’re interested in exploring with you. We expect this list to evolve over time and it is in no way meant to be comprehensive. It’s also worth noting that we suspect many of the best applicants to our program to be working on ideas that we haven’t even considered in one of these topics. However, solutions that address these particular topic areas are sorely needed, and our hope is that some of you are already out there working on them. Whether you’re working to address these problems, or you’re building other products and services that enhance the urban landscape and improve the world in a tangible way, we’d love to talk to you.


It’s been estimated that air pollution in Beijing reduces average life expectancy by as much as 15 years. An extreme example, of course, but it’s impossible to deny that the process of mass-urbanization will have an increasingly enormous impact on human quality of life, biodiversity, and climate change. With larger populations come larger amounts of waste, congestion, increased energy consumption, and more noise. What technologies can we introduce to help monitor and curb these seemingly inevitable side effects?


Homelessness is a global problem. And it’s a problem we should be able to fix. In 2015, there were 59,929 homeless people sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter systems. Families comprise nearly four-fifths of this population. Never mind the unfortunate folks who didn’t have a shelter to sleep in. As our cities grow we have to ensure that all of our citizens have access to affordable housing, which may require some unconventional thinking. Or unconventional housing?


First, some good news: Violent crime rates averaged across major international cities have been steadily declining for the past decade. Still, despite promising international trends, many cities continue to experience abnormally high crime rates, and in some cities, these numbers are increasing instead of decreasing. Even in the United States, our most violent cities still have violent crime rates in excess of 2,000 incidents per 100,000 residents (2%!). No one should have to live in constant fear of violent crime, rape, or theft. We can lower crime in various ways; some of these are political, while others may be assisted by technology. The latter may include new types of home security automation and personal security devices, as well as applying artificial intelligence and pattern matching to detect and prevent certain crimes (while of course being mindful of privacy concerns, itself a whole separate topic for exploration). Finally, there are numerous ways in which technology can make the tasks of law enforcement and first responders more safe and ultimately successful.


Nothing on this list would be possible without energy. And as our global population increases, competition for energy also increases. It goes without saying that our societal need for clean and sustainable energy sources will only increase over time as well, as our reliance on non-renewable sources remains at dangerous levels. We need to work diligently on lowering the cost of producing and monitoring this energy, while also creating better ways to store and transfer it. Is there additional technology that we can deploy in public and private spaces to passively collect and store energy?


Moving things from place to place is expensive. 10.8 million Americans spend at least two hours commuting to and from their place of work every day.  As a society, our choices for personal transportation are largely inefficient, unenjoyable, and consume far too much energy relative to their value. Our public transportation infrastructure varies considerably; New York’s MTA is remarkably good, relative to other cities, but not without its problems. Our delivery infrastructure, particularly the last mile, is struggling to scale as the population of our global cities outpace the design of their roads and throughways. We’re not going to stop moving people around any time soon (in India alone, demand for transport infrastructure is growing by more than 10% a year), so let’s find ways to make that migration faster, less costly, more predictable, and more enjoyable. This might mean enhancements for existing modes of transit like bicycles, rail systems, or smarter automobiles. Or it might mean rethinking those modes altogether. It’s difficult to imagine a future where autonomous vehicles or robots aren’t playing some major role in this. And it’s also worth considering what additional infrastructure will need to exist to support them.


At HAX we’ve funded several companies who are creating the building blocks and application layers for the Internet of Things. It won’t be long until everything and everyone is connected. And as we connect our homes, our offices, and our cities, we generate more and more data. Can we turn that data into actionable insights? If we can monitor foot traffic in front of retail storefronts or local cafes, what information can we give those store owners about their businesses? Can we help them optimize their happy hour specials in order to compete with the chain restaurant next door? How can transit data be used to improve routing and decrease congestion? Furthermore, how can we use sensor data to make better decisions at the municipal level, allowing city governments to detect public policy approval and disapproval and adapt as our populations grow and change? We strongly believe that the best cities will ultimately be those that have the most data, and a framework in place with which to act on that data.


Many of you know our sister program, FOOD-X, which is also based in New York City. There are few things as important to our collective health and success as a society than food. Urban growing is one topic we’re particularly interested in, both on personal as well as commercial scales. Is the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) of the future distributed across urban rooftops? Increasing self-sufficiency and reducing the distance that our food travels to get to our tables is an important goal, with significant impacts on energy and cost. The other side of the food equation is waste. As our population density grows, our waste density grows along with it. Can we develop better infrastructure for gray water reuse? How can we be smarter about food waste disposal? Or perhaps an even better question is, how can we dramatically reduce waste?


We’re looking for startups who are building tangible technology to facilitate sharing and neighbor networking. We want to fund things that make life in our cities better by leveraging the critical masses and shared interests that exist inside of them, connecting our most valuable assets: our people. This category is pretty broad. It could mean creating innovative micro-storage lockers, smart bike locks that turn every bike into a rental bike, or adaptable wireless mesh networks for cities that lack public wireless infrastructure. It could also be any variety of social hardware that improves public spaces. How can improvements in the physical world change the relationships we have with our neighbors?