Envisioning the Future of Cities, With a Boost From Philanthropy

 photo:  Kamil Hajek/shutterstock

photo:  Kamil Hajek/shutterstock

Technology plays an increasingly important role in managing complex urban centers, with applications in transportation and other infrastructure, as well as governance, energy, construction, and more. But while there's a lot of excitement around "smart city" technologies, getting enough money behind good ideas isn't always easy—even in a place like New York City, which has so often been on the cutting edge of urban trends. 

To address this challenge, the Urban Future Lab, based at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, created a competition to give a boost to promising technology to support the future of New York City. This competition brings together entrepreneurs, investors and policy leaders, and it relies partly upon the support of philanthropy to push it forward. The New York Community Trust (NYCT) was a sponsor of the competition, as well as BP Ventures and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

While this was a New York-focused effort, the recent round of the competition actually drew in submissions from over 22 countries and saw a record number of applications. The winners collectively received $150,000 in funding thanks to these sponsorships. Industry investors and corporate leaders chose three winners to receive $50,000 cash prizes, and two of the three applicants are based in NYC. Dollaride is based in Brooklyn and uses ridesharing technology to make vans more accessible to people who live in neighborhoods with poor transportation options. Avvir is a New York-based construction tech company that uses computer vision and deep learning to ensure customers that buildings are developed properly and on schedule. The third-prize winner is simuwatt, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, and helps entities discover energy efficient investments through data and analytics.

This competition is something that NYCT supports as part of its commitment to sustainability through technology. It’s been pushing for ways to make New York City cleaner, greener, and more energy efficient through entrepreneurship and startups. In turn, this work is part of a broader agenda that touches many corners of life in the city. Last month, NYCT announced 52 new grants totaling $8.3 million to assist local organizations that provide wrap-around services to cancer patients, improve paratransit, train workers for healthcare jobs, and record the history of Muslims in America.

But sustainability has been a strong theme in NYCT's work for years, now. And, as is often the case with this funder, it's looked to partnerships that span different sectors to move things forward. 

“Realizing energy-saving innovations is impossible without cooperation between public and private entities,” said Arturo Garcia-Costas, the program officer for NYCT’s Thriving Communities National and NYC Environment program. “These awards provide a much-needed boost for companies meeting intractable problems head on.”

Meanwhile, BP Ventures has been steadily investing in tech companies and looking to back energy innovations. It  has invested more than $400 million since 2006 and has 42 active portfolio investments. While this investing is primarily focused on innovations in oil and gas, BP Ventures is good to know if you're looking for support with emerging technologies related to bio and low-carbon products, carbon management, power and storage, advanced mobility, and digital transformation.

The Urban Future Lab is in Downtown Brooklyn and dedicated to building a clean-energy economy in New York by helping new companies scale up and put their ideas to work. You can learn more about the winners and opportunities for eligible startups here.

Related: Six Key Highlights from NYCT’s Most Recent Local Grantmaking