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September 24, 2014

Where Urban Innovators Go to Grow

A Look at Tumml, One of a New Crop of Civic Tech Accelerators

On a recent evening in San Francisco’s South of Market district, seven teams of entrepreneurs took the stage to pitch their tech startups to an audience of potential investors and partners. But this wasn’t your typical Demo Day. All seven startups—participants in a one-year old accelerator program called Tumml—were focused on solving urban problems, from commuting and street parking to job training and water issues.

Tumml is one of a new breed of ‘civic tech’ accelerator that is cropping up across the country. These programs take the mentoring-plus-money model that has traditionally helped turbocharge software startups hoping to be the next Facebook or Twitter, and apply it to civic-minded startups trying to solve some of the thorniest social problems faced by society, from homelessness to energy to transportation. Social media takes a back seat to social good.

Tumml—a Yiddish word meaning “a commotion”—was started in 2012 by Clara Brenner and Julie Lein, former classmates at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who created the program after seeing a void in the market for programs addressing civic ventures. The pair bill Tumml as an “urban ventures accelerator” focused on helping startups with innovative solutions to urban problems that city governments alone cannot tackle. “It’s tech for good,” says Brenner, Tumml’s CEO.

Other organizations that run accelerator programs focused on civic tech include Code for America, 1776 in Washington DC, and Points of Light. In Brooklyn, the a public-private partnership sponsored by the NYC Economic Development Corp. helps runs the Urban Future Lab, an incubator for startups working on sustainable solutions in the areas of energy, transportation, waste, water, air quality and infrastructure.

They programs vary in focus, but generally seek to help startups that can make life better for cities and communities, or help governments be more effective.

Civic tech has taken off in the last few years as entrepreneurs have begun harnessing the forces of open data, social media and citizen engagement to solve social problems. But these startups face unique challenges, says Brenner, particularly with funding and mentorship.

Urban impact entrepreneurs are half as likely as their peers to secure seed funding, she says. And they often have a longer and more capital-intensive runway. In addition, civic startups often need to interact with government agencies to pursue their missions, whether that entails getting access to government data, obtaining permits or creating partnerships.

“We want to serve as a beacon and help these companies get past these hurdles,” she says.

Tumml is a non-profit, funded by grants from organizations including the Omidyar Network and The Blackstone Charitable Foundation. It admits two cohorts a year, whittling down hundreds of applications to between five and ten startups per cohort. Brenner and Lien, as well as a team of advisors, look for startups with local solutions that can scale to other cities. The four-month program includes space in their SOMA office, mentorship from the tech, government and corporate worlds, and seed funding of  $20,000 per company (for a 5 percent stake).

Several of its alumni have gained traction. HandsUp, an early participant in the program, helps homeless people crowdfund money for specific needs such as healthcare, a down payment on a home or securing a vendor permit to start a business. The company partners with homeless organizations that set up a Facebook-like fundraising page on behalf of the homeless individual. HandsUp recently raised $850,000 in funding from prominent angel investors. KidAdmit, another Tumml alum, snagged $500,000 in seed funding from SV Angels and K9 Ventures to further its open pre-K school application system.

At Tumml’s recent Demo Day, startups from Tumml’s third cohort—including Akimbo, a digital platform connecting employment-challenged individuals with professional opportunities, Chariot, a low cost shuttle service that boasts it is faster than public buses and cheaper than Uber, and PopUpster, which connects vendors and artisans with pop-up and retail space—attracted a crowd of 150 or so investors, government leaders and policy experts.

For the urban entrepreneurs who presented, the evening capped a busy four months and marked the next phase of their journeys. “It put us in front of a really unique group of people—potential community partners, customers and investors who are all excited about urban innovation and to learn more about us,” said Aaron Lander, the CEO of PopUpsters.


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Amy Cortese is an award-winning journalist and the author of Locavesting (Wiley, 2011), about the local investing movement and its potential to rebuild the economy, one community at a time. Her coverage of business, technology and social/environmental issues has appeared in Business Week, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Plenty, Wired, The Daily Beast, and many other publications. Used with the permission of ‘The Network, Cisco’s Technology News Site.’ http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.

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