A Conversation with Micah Kotch on MINI’s Accelerator URBAN-X

As the world continues to respond to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BMW Group is committed to driving lasting impact through innovation and technology. Created by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X supports startup companies from around the world reimagining city life. 

We recently spoke with Micah Kotch, Managing Director of URBAN-X to learn more about the accelerator, his role, and what can be done to help solve some of these urban challenges faced by cities worldwide. 

Check out his full interview below!

Q: Tell us about the URBAN-X accelerator, and what do you believe is the most innovative aspect of it? 

A: URBAN-X is an accelerator for early-stage startups reimagining city life built by MINI in partnership with the venture fund Urban Us.  We’re specifically interested in founders helping making cities more resilient as we transition to a zero-carbon future.  We don’t have a lot of time to figure this transition out; globally we need to reduce emissions 40% by 2030 and we think entrepreneurs will be a big part of developing and deploying the solutions that get us there. 

Over the past four and a half years we’ve built an incredible portfolio of 57 entrepreneurs from all around the globe tackling our biggest challenges in mobility, energy, real estate and construction, water, waste, food systems and the cold chain, infrastructure and gov-tech.  We have a unique set of tools and resources we leverage to help our founders get to product-market fit and raise their next round of capital.  Over the years, we’ve built an incredibly deep network of leaders from the public and private sector who can help entrepreneurs level up and bring their solution to market in order to help mitigate, adapt, and ultimately solve the climate challenge we collectively face.

Q: Tell us about your background, your role at URBAN-X, and how your daily work is being used to foster innovation and create efficiency and sustainability for city life?  

A: I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn. So, I feel a deep abiding love for cities as centers of culture, commerce, and human connection.  I graduated early from Colgate University with a degree in Asian Studies so I could go live and work in China.  It was an eye-opening experience, and I wound up starting a company while there at the intersection of entertainment and mobile phones.  While that company flamed out, I’ve been working with startups ever since.  In the early 2000’s I became deeply interested in sustainability and helped launch the Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation at Pratt Institute, and then after the financial crisis of ’08 I was recruited by NYU to help start NYC’s first-sponsored tech incubator.  I spent time working on utility business model transformation and energy resiliency for Governor Cuomo after Hurricane Sandy, and I’m a big believer in the idea that alongside large companies and policymakers, startup companies have a significant role to play in helping realize a net-zero economy.  

I’m incredibly privileged and grateful to be part of a talented team at URBAN-X, reporting into the Strategy division at MINI.  Most of our day-to-day work is supporting our network of companies with their most critical-path objectives.  We spend a lot of time interacting with investors, companies, municipal officials, and other actors in the climate-tech ecosystem.  We also think it’s important to tell compelling stories, so we’re focused on packaging content for our newsletter, our social channels, speaking virtually at conferences, writing white papers, and producing content like our newest zine which is focused on the Future of Streets.

Q: In your own words, how would you describe current urban challenges that cities are facing?

A: Here in the US, cities are in uncharted territory and are facing intersecting crises: the public health crises, the racial justice crisis, the climate crisis, and the employment crisis.  There are financial implications to a decrease in tax revenue, planning implications to a drop-off in mass transit ridership, and social implications to bridge the racial divide that was brought to the fore in 2020.  So the challenges are complex and interrelated, but I’m optimistic.  As Derek Thompson wrote recently in The Atlantic, “The 21st-century city is the child of catastrophe. The comforts and infrastructure we take for granted were born of age-old afflictions: fire, flood, pestilence. Our tall buildings, our subways, our subterranean conduits, our systems for bringing water in and taking it away, our building codes and public-health regulations—all were forged in the aftermath of urban disasters by civic leaders and citizen visionaries.”

Q: How have some of the companies who have participated in URBAN-X inspired you?   Do you have any advice for potential startups looking to be a part of this accelerator program?

A: The best part of the work I do is that I get to work with people who believe they can change the world.  Robyn Beavers, Founder of cohort 03 startup Blueprint Power was just named NASDAQ’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Roadbotics, another Cohort 03 company is helping more than 300 cities around the world improve their road infrastructure.  Climate Roadbotics, a cohort 08 company is building robots to sequester carbon. So, I am literally surrounded by hope and inspiration.  

The best founders I’ve worked with over the years are more interested in the problem they’re solving than their solution.  They ask the right questions to the right people, and they use data from those conversations to build the thing that solves the burn, not the itch.  They test, measure, repeat.  They are stubborn in vision, but flexible in tactics.  I think the Lean Launchpad methodology pioneered by Steve Blank, Bob Dorf and Alex Osterwalder is a really useful framework to think about building something that is repeatable and scalable.

Q: As we look towards the future, what kind of advancements do you expect to see in the future of cities? What potential solutions will these innovations bring to solve urban challenges?  

A: According to a recent report from McKinsey, ride hailing declined 60 to 70 percent at the beginning of COVID while micromobility options like e-scooters and bikeshare became a lifeline for people with few other travel options.  So this dynamic, the evolution of ride-hail, the growth of e-bikes and e-scooters has implications for commuting, for urban planning, and for carbon emissions.  I’m not sure we’ll see a huge drop-off in e-commerce delivery even once we have a vaccine that gets deployed widely, but I do think we’ll need to have a restructuring that provides for zero-emission last-mile delivery.  The other big change coming is that by 2023, experts expect 7% of global car sales to be electric. That’s 5.4 million more EV drivers on the streets in the next few years. By 2040, EVs will account for 58% of new car sales and 31% of cars on the road being electric.  So cities have a lot of work to do to not only think through equity and access but also charging infrastructure, and grid impacts, and ultimately, ways that electric fleets can actually be a resource as opposed to a detriment.

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