“Smart City” Startup Soofa Nabs $2.5M, Led by Underscore and Pillar

Xconomy Boston — 

Should a bench be more than just a place to sit? For Soofa and its customers, the answer is yes.

The Cambridge, MA-based startup makes solar-powered, sensor-equipped benches that double as charging stations for phones and other devices. These “smart” benches can also help municipalities and other partners measure the amount of activity in parks, bus stops, public plazas, and other communal spaces, the company says. Soofa also makes signs that it bills as the “bulletin board of the 21st century.” The solar-powered, Internet-connected signs have digital displays that provide real-time info to passerby about public transit and local events, as well as run advertisements.

Soofa’s products have been installed in 75 cities, says co-founder and CEO Sandra Richter. And now, the company aims to boost its growth through a $2.5 million funding round. The money will mainly go toward hiring and investing in the company’s products, she says.

The new round, disclosed last week in an SEC filing, was led by Underscore VC and Pillar, two new Boston-area venture firms. Other investors include Accomplice, which was an earlier backer of Soofa, and a group of individuals, Richter says. The company has now raised a total of $3.35 million in equity funding, she adds.

Soofa, which is officially incorporated under the name Changing Environments, was founded in 2014 by Richter, Jutta Friedrichs, and Nan Zhao. The company spun out of the MIT Media Lab and got seed funding from Accomplice and the E14 Fund, which invests in Media Lab spinouts. (Richter researched urban mobility at the Media Lab, where Zhao is a PhD candidate, according to their LinkedIn profiles.)

Soofa’s products sit at the intersection of several trends generating a lot of buzz these days: the development of “smart” cities and urban infrastructure; the proliferation of connected devices; new applications in data analytics; and targeted advertising.

Richter also sees her company’s products as conduits for making new connections between people in the real world—think of strangers striking up conversations while sitting on a bench charging their phones. Those kinds of interactions are especially important in this era of social media, virtual reality, and people glued to their screens. She says Soofa’s products are about creating a “community fabric that’s updated to where we are as humans today”—meaning technologically advanced products that are beautifully designed.

“I would love us to look at with big eyes, as our kids do, public spaces and all the locations where we can meet and greet other people. That’s what life is all about,” she says. “We’re not robots.”

Soofa isn’t the only company that sees an opportunity in smart cities. Steora is another company, based in Croatia, that makes “smart benches.” It’s hard to tell how Soofa is doing financially, since Richter declined to share the company’s revenues or number of employees.

Soofa makes money in a few ways. Governments, businesses, and other organizations pay to have the company’s benches and signs installed in communal spaces. The company charges fees for producing data analytics reports about the activity around its products, Richter says. For example, a city might want to measure how many people use a park and when are the popular times to visit. That information could help the city measure return on investment and adjust maintenance schedules, for example. The Park District of Oak Park, IL, has used the data to calculate attendance at events and evaluate the effectiveness of different strategies for marketing the events.

Brands can also place advertisements on Soofa’s products, either with acrylic signs on the benches, or in digital form on the company’s signs. (Fun fact: the sign’s electronic paper displays are made by E Ink, a Massachusetts-born company whose former CEO is Pillar partner Russ Wilcox.)

One of Soofa’s goals is to show that its data analytics can help municipalities and advertisers deliver “the right content to the right people, and therefore they’ll effectively pay a premium,” says Underscore partner John Pearce. “That’s what we’re looking to prove,” he adds.

It might be New Balance advertising an event that will take place in a Boston park, for example, or touting a certain healthy activity, Richter says. “How can we get the brands to be part of the dialogue?” she says.

Soofa handles basically every aspect of its business in-house: designing the hardware, developing the software, performing data analytics, and selling the advertisements, Richter says. The company oversees the content displayed on its products because “we want to be able to curate it and make sure it’s up to our expectations in terms of making sure it’s relevant,” she says.