Spotlight on STIR Mentors: Stonly Baptiste, Cofounder of Urban Us
Stonly Baptiste is cofounder and partner at Urban Us, a venture fund for startups that make cities and the environment better. Urban Us works with the leading startups disrupting massive markets in built environment, transportation, resources, and government. Stonly also helped create and teach the first urban-focused entrepreneurship course at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Stonly has volunteered his time as a mentor for Startup in Residence since 2016.
What was your path to focusing on urban innovation and climate change mitigation?
My introduction to urban tech was when building an IoT startup trying to reduce the impact of drawbridges on traffic in downtown Miami. Our idea was to eventually expand to all moveable infrastructure — that is, public infrastructure with varying states in a given day that impacts things like traffic and emergency vehicles.
That was a really hard problem to solve, as it turns out. For example, public infrastructure has national security implications. There were challenges around funding and building hardware. There were challenges around basic permitting to install a physical device on a bridge. From a business model perspective, we wanted to sell to emergency services in the city. These were some of the hardest lessons of building an urban tech company all rolled into one project.
Why did you found Urban Us, a network and venture fund for urban tech startups?
I met with [Urban Us cofounder] Shaun Abrahamson, who was an angel investor at the time. Our conversations focused more and more on the systematic challenges around creating a startup that solves city challenges. We realized there was an opportunity to solve problems at scale by enabling more founders to build and scale companies in the urban tech space.
At that point, there wasn’t really a word for this space. We coined the term “urban tech,” and it’s since caught on like wildfire.
That was four years ago. Since then, Urban Us has invested in 36 companies across and outside the United States, and we’re in our second fund now. We didn’t start off calling it a fund, though. We wanted to connect startups who were interested in solving urban challenges with capital, customers, and advisors. We did that by building out a network of these resources, the Urban Us network.
The network started with 18 people. Today, we have a community of almost 2,000. These advisors help us find new companies, understand the companies we’re looking at, and connect them with resources. For the companies we don’t invest in, we loop them into the network so they can still benefit from knowledge sharing.
How did you get involved with Startup in Residence?
When I moved to San Francisco more than two years ago, one of the first people I met was Jeremy Goldberg, who was leading the second iteration of STIR. I was really excited to see the program grow to another level.
I offered to be a mentor because the alignment with our mission was clear. Urban Us looks for companies to invest in that are solving urban challenges, and STIR incubates these companies. We follow the progress of STIR and contribute where we can through mentoring startups and participating in panel discussions.
Why do you think a program like Startup in Residence is important?
For startups who are looking to make the government more efficient or solve societal challenges, it is difficult to understand exactly what the city’s needs are. STIR provides access to that insight.
Beyond that, STIR is an opportunity for startups to sit down with a city department, get to the meat of how a solution might be built, and then actually work with them to build an optimal solution, or at least a testable solution.
Longer term, some of the projects from the program are turning into contracts, which is the second big challenge for any company — getting your customers. With business to government sales, the process of getting a long term contract can sometimes take upwards of a year. In some cases, STIR is shrinking that number down to three to six months, which is phenomenal.
As the STIR program expands across the country in 2018, are there any products you’d like to see or ideas that you believe need more attention?
I’m always interested in seeing more companies solving problems at the intersection of climate change and urbanization. Our team has done research around the various systems and sectors where teams are investing their time and investors are investing their money. We’ve found there is still underinvestment in areas like water and waste, as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation. We’re also increasingly curious about scalable solutions and models for food systems and public health.
At Urban Us, what do you look for in a startup? What makes them worthy of investment?
There are a number of factors that influence our decision, and the first is timing. The timing might be early if the team doesn’t have a fully finalized idea. Or it might be late if the team has already raised more money than we can fit into our allocation strategy.
Additionally, is this an area we’re bearish or bullish about investing in? Of course, if it’s a smart team that’s passionate about urban challenges, we don’t want to lose the opportunity to help them in other ways.
Beyond timing, we have a series of questions that we like to explore with teams. How they think about market size, why and how they’re building their company, what their solution looks like now and what it might look like later, how to measure impact, how they’re thinking about financing the company, what are the proof points that the customer demand is there. All of the traditional things a VC might look at, with an additional emphasis on impact.
If we don’t invest, we still offer the opportunity to continue the relationship through the Urban Us network.
Finally, what projects have you been working on lately? Any exciting news to share?
We just launched a scrappy first version of the Urban Tech Startup Playbook. We’ve had the benefit of looking over the shoulders of great founders to see what they’ve struggled with and the answers they’ve found. We collected our notes around those unique challenges associated with building an urban tech company and organized them into a playbook.
It’s only 20 pages long, and there’s more work to be done, but so far the feedback has been great. We’re really excited and encouraged by the response, especially from the founders, who feel that the book is an expression of empathy for their struggles. There are also some valuable takeaways. The playbook is available for free at urban.us/usp.
More recently, we partnered with BMW / MINI to run their Urban-X Accelerator in New York. That has allowed us to focus on our network strategy and go back to where we started, investing in the earliest stage companies.
The cohort has phenomenal founders who come from all over the world. They’re solving really fascinating challenges like city scale imaging, autonomous driving, autonomous logistics for cities, the future of car ownership and transportation, and a few other interesting areas that we believe will transform cities if they’re successful.