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Farming, Parking and Public Safety Top List of Smart Cities Problems Tackled

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Cities are the future. Last year, more than half of the global population lived in urban areas; that’s only going up and steadily.

As the world shifts to urban centers, problems new and old are creeping up—from overcrowded roadways and dilapidated infrastructure to managing waste, water, food and other resources.

During the 16-stop Challenge Cup, startups that are tackling these issues emerged to pitch their ideas. Companies who competed in the transportation & smart cities category represented one of the broader swaths of the four sectors. And their interpretation of the “cities” part of the equation differed a good deal as well. Some founders are eyeing city governments as customers for their product. Others are beginning with solutions that try to make life better in a few specific cities—at least initially—and then build from there.

These are some of the trends among smart cities startups that cut across Challenge Cup destinations.

A desire to revolutionize farms and to enhance food supply and quality

The very first smart cities winner this year, Local Roots Farms, got the ball rolling on the need to transform how crops are grown and distributed. Local Roots’ big idea is to use hydroponics and old shipping containers to grow produce year-round from anywhere, beginning with lettuce. Cofounder Dan Kuenzi said 90 percent of the nation’s lettuce comes from California. By the time it gets to the East Coast the lettuce has traveled for more than a week and is much less fresh, plus shipping costs to get the produce across the country run exorbitantly high.

By contrast, Local Roots’ 40-foot shipping containers can each yield what would it would otherwise take five acres of outdoor farm land to grow.

“Our process is called controlled environment agriculture,” Kuenzi said after the competition.  “Basically it’s the process of taking the same seeds that grow outside and putting them indoors under optimal growing conditions. Think of our systems as the next era of greenhouses; instead of using sunlight we use energy-efficient LEDs.”

A focus on sustainable agriculture also stood out in several of the Mexico City  pitches. For instance, according to Nutriland’s founders, farmers are using too many chemical fertilizers due to lack of knowledge about how much they need and the toll fertilizer can take on crops.

As a result, the startup has devised a mobile app that gives farmers customizable guidance to grow more efficiently and, in the process, have a healthier yield. So far they’ve saved their 1,500 customers an average cost of 30 percent. Nutriland isn’t aiming to curb something minor; its addressable market in Mexico alone is 4 million, the number of people in that nation who earn their  living through farming.

In Ireland, too, farmers occupy a key place in the country’s economy, both past and present. Appropriately, the runner-up company in the smart cities category at the Dublin Challenge Cup was Mart365, which was dreamed up by Mary McKenzie, a rare combination of a farmer and software developer. McKenzie’s plight, as a farmer, lies in the lengthy, outdated process of buying and selling animals such as cows and pigs.

“The way it works right now I don’t know how much I’ll get for livestock. I don’t know how much they’ll weigh. It’s very old-fashioned,” she explained during the pitch event.

Mart365, which she’s finishing developing, tells farmers prices so they can compare and decide on their options. Down the line, her product will even put the auctions online and make the full animal transaction process digital.

In addition, the notion of local food came up in a big way in Nairobi, courtesy of Twiga Fruits, the cities category runner-up. Twiga’s value proposition is that it makes better quality, cheaper fruit available to Kenyans by buying directly from farmers. For the farmers they get guaranteed prices, and Twiga handles their produce with care, delivering it to thousands of independent kiosks around the African country.

Solving crime and public safety woes via technology

Early on in the Challenge Cup stops, especially, a number of startups in the cities category presented crime-related solutions.

Chicago winner, The Guard Llama, is trying to keep college and university students safe and protect them from violence attacks on campus. The company does this through a bluetooth remote. Users are given a piece of hardware that they can attach to their keys, backpack or purse. If they get in trouble they just have to push the button on the remote and it sends their location and profile to an emergency dispatch center.

The company was launched in direct response to a real-life attack at founder Joe Parisi’s alma mater, Northern Illinois University, where a freshman body turned up four days after she went missing.

“NIU has all of these emergency call boxes that are all over the place. If you get in trouble you’re supposed to run up and hit it, and then the police come help you,” Parisi said after his win. “It always struck everyone as ridiculous that, despite the fact that all of these things were scattered all around campus, nothing was around for this girl and nothing could help her.”

In D.C., Brandon Anderson founded startup SWAT while he was still studying at Georgetown University. Anderson personally lost his partner to police violence, which inspired him to start the company. SWAT is an app that acts as a secure evidence collector and police misconduct reporting service.

And maximizing safety while city residents are walking between locations is one aim of UrbanWatchers, which competed in the Mexico City leg of Challenge Cup. The company’s app uses geo-mapping to help pedestrians report city problems such as trash and broken sidewalks, but also safety concerns as they arise.

The above companies are more geared toward preventing crime and incidents of a more violent nature. But a few Challenge Cup competitors also are addressing drug and alcohol detection in order to give law enforcement and businesses better tools.

Digilabrador’s way of doing this is through a device its founders spent the past four years creating. Instead of relying on drug-sniffing dogs, Digilabrador’s hand-held device pinpoints the precise location of four kinds of illegal drugs in a 2 kilometer radius. According to cofounder Ashraf Ahmad, using dogs is expensive, and it’s not really catching most notorious drugs.

“So we decided to do something about it,” he said. “We are technology experts and we believe that technology can really make things better for society.”

The runner-up startup in New York, Bar & Club Stats, is helping better gauge underage drinkers with a scannable app. Its customers for the app are bar owners who are better able to prevent 21-year-old and under patrons from entering their establishments, fixing a situation before it escalates.

Parking, alternative vehicles garnered the most transportation-related entries

Among those companies working to better transportation, by far, parking was the most popular subset. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most Challenge Cup stops featured multiple parking applications and solutions.

That’s probably because across major cites, countries and continents, congestion from traffic remains a major obstacle. Drivers spend enormous amounts of time circling public streets and parking lots in search of a place to leave their vehicles.

Most of the Challenge Cup parking startups are trying to combat this parking problem with better, geolocated data; they pledge to give drivers more accurate information about available spaces or, in some cases, to allow drivers to pay for parking via their phones as they search for spots.

In this crowded field of parking, only one emerged as a Challenge Cup regional winner: Bangalore’s Pparke. In a conversation after his winning pitch, cofounder Shampa Ganguly said that Pparke is more than just a consumer app, which differentiates it in the marketplace.

“We work with parking owners to help them with their revenue management and manage the parking dynamics, which mostly consists of supply and demand of the spaces,” she said. “We have something very interesting called demand-based parking wherein the parking price could be substantially lower or higher based on the traffic.”

Transportation startups around the world also are attempting to spur more people to switch to electric and hybrid forms of transport.

For instance, San Francisco cities runner-up Faraday Bikes has designed a state-of-the-art electric bike that the company manufactures entirely on its own. The startup was launched by former IDEO staff members, and its eventual goal is to get the price of the bicycle down to $1,000 to support widespread adoption.

Meanwhile, SF winner EverCharge makes electric-vehicle-charging systems specifically for condos and other multi-unit dwellings. One of the obstacles to consumer adoption of electric cars in the U.S. is this lack of charging stations in cities—especially in big buildings where a substantial number of city residents live.

CEO Jason Appelbaum says EverCharge  sees high demand for EV charging stations in certain cities like Miami, D.C. and Chicago, and he wants to expand there as fast as possible.

“Condo density is where we’re looking,” he says. “You can pretty much determine where our chargers are going to be popular by locating a major city with high condo density.”

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…