Tumml Accelerator Evolving Formula For Urban Venture Financing

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Brenner and Lein think urban ventures require an accelerator program tailored to their specific needs.

Chariot is using Web data to augment public transit in San Francisco. The startup has already launched two commuter shuttle routes in the city, based on GPS tracking and other data that identified the Marina district as poorly served by buses and trolleys. The startup’s passenger vans circle between the Marina—a desirable residential area—and workplaces in the downtown financial district and in the tech company gulch south of Market Street.

Buying a small van fleet is a capital-intensive startup plan—and traditional investors often shy away from such social impact ventures, says Brenner. Like Chariot, urban-based entrepreneurs often organize the use of physical products, she says—bike sharing and food distribution programs are two examples—and so they need to persuade investors or lenders that the higher capital outlays will pay off.

Community-based ventures also tend to need more help from civic and government leaders than more traditional tech startups, Brenner says. “They need permits to operate in physical spaces,” she says. Among Tumml’s current startup participants, for instance, is Letsmake, an online marketplace where chefs, craftsworkers, and other “makers” can find workshops or commercial kitchens to rent in their communities.

Unconventional urban enterprises can also veer into regulatory grey areas, Brenner says. The growth of pioneering services such as travel rental network Airbnb and driver-for-hire platform Uber raised questions about how much they needed to conform with regional licensing and tax policies that apply to traditional hotels and taxi companies.

Tumml encourages its startups to preview their plans with local authorities before setting up shop, Brenner says. Current Tumml participant Volo is in private beta mode while it explores ways to help city drivers find scarce parking spots through peer-to-peer mobile communication. Brenner says Volo is trying to avoid the problems encountered by its forerunner parking apps, including ParkModo, which was accused of encouraging drivers to sell access to the spaces they were leaving to other motorists searching for a spot. After ParkModo’s debut, San Francisco’s city attorney filed a court action to block the service.

While most Tumml startups are aimed at consumers, the accelerator has now accepted companies whose intended customers are businesses or government organizations. Among these is current participant Valor Water, whose mission is to help water utility companies manage drought conditions and promote conservation. Christine Boyle, a PhD water policy consultant, says she founded Valor Water in November because she saw opportunities for utility managers to mine the valuable information in their customer billing records.

For example, say the utility’s customers have cut their water use by a total of 20 percent in response to a drought. But that also means a hefty chunk of lost revenue for the utility. “Will this be permanent?” is one of the questions utility managers have to ask themselves, Boyle says. It’s possible that many customers have installed more efficient new sprinklers, or have made other permanent changes that will curb their water consumption well after the drought period, Boyle says. So, should the utility trim its future budgets, and table a planned expansion of water delivery capacity?

At one utility, a granular look at the billing data revealed that a large fraction of the total drop in water usage came from a limited number of formerly high-using customers, Boyle says. Armed with that insight, a utility manager could contact those customers to find out whether they installed permanent fixtures to reduce their water use. The Valor Water platform analyzes 25 different patterns of this type from the billing data, presents them in graphic form, and allows utility officials to run simulations on various actions they’re considering.

“The idea is to make this part of their everyday decisionmaking,” Boyle says.

Boyle gives a thumbs-up to the Tumml program as a leg up for … Next Page »

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