Shaun Abrahamson
Jan 13, 2020 · 8 min read


Cities beat climate change with help from startups

Over 1,000 Urban Us portfolio companies help cities achieve climate goals well ahead of schedule

New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco: Urban Us today announced their one thousandth investment and showed how Urban Us portfolio companies together have become the most significant part of city climate action plans impacting over one billion people around the globe.

This milestone is a major progress update from Urban Us on its mission to help startups upgrade cities to meet climate action goals.

“Two decades ago, investors said no to hardware, no to regulated industries, and no to working with local governments,” said Stonly Baptiste. “It seemed like startup founders had the vision and determination but not the access to capital. But we helped startup founders to find a way.”

This news comes in the wake of many recent Urban Us initiatives and accomplishments, including:

  • Urban Us portfolio has played a significant role in getting the world’s largest cities on track to zero emissions, while reducing risk by a factor of 10 for people and assets.
  • Investor returns across private equity, credit and asset management are expected to exceed 25% for 2029, outperforming public markets for the tenth consecutive year.
  • Over 1000 startup teams now have a combined value of $100b and have secured $50b in private capital.
  • 10 companies are now publicly traded. 90 teams have been acquired by sector leaders in transportation, real estate, technology, construction, energy, water and waste management.

“Ten years ago we discovered unique ways to help startups interact with the new urban environment — but they needed new types of capital, said Mark Paris. “Ten years later, our ability to help companies across the capital stack has been central to our growth, but more importantly the rapid acceleration of our portfolio companies.”

The most successful Urban Us portfolio companies focused on new distribution strategies, new sources of capital and new capital structures. Sometimes they partnered with incumbent firms but many built full stack competitors in industries as nascent as construction, mobility and food.

With help from Urban Us, corporate investors as well as individual investors and family offices join city pension funds to fund and own new types of assets like energy storage and nomadic tiny homes and all manner of fleets from electric cargo bikes to firefighting drones.

To learn more about how startups helped upgrading cities in 2030, please continue below.

How startups upgraded cities to solve climate change –January 1, 2030

It’s 2030. In the last ten years, Urban Us portfolio companies have been able to achieve unprecedented public benefits. Urban Us have played a central role in massive shifts like electric vehicle miles travelled and zero emissions HVAC. Importantly, we also made progress on climate adaptation. Despite year-over-year increase in fire, flood and storm intensity, risks have been reduced by an order of magnitude for people living in places like Japan, Australia, and most of North America.

Although most cities are now on track to meet their GHG emissions targets, losses continue to mount from hurricanes, floods, fires and other climate-change-related natural disasters throughout the world. However, these events have helped galvanize support, finally overcoming decades-long disinformation and inertia. It was easy to see the path outlined in Project Drawdown — the question was when, not if, we would achieve the goals. But it was harder to see the outsize potential of startups in playing a major role in solutions or the volatility of real estate and fossil fuel assets.

Urban Us has moved far beyond our beginnings as a venture fund. Today, we fund many types of assets like firefighting drones and light electric logistics fleets. We’ve come a long way from our early efforts in EV and battery fleets. We help to model risk and returns for emerging classes of climate action assets and have partnered with leading corporations in transportation, energy, construction, real estate, robotics, and communications. These partnerships have enabled unprecedented adoption of new urban infrastructure globally in markets including China, India, and Africa. And today, Urban Us has close working relationships with policymakers in a strong rebuke of the antagonistic startup approach to local government of the 2010s.

Early Urban Us investors saw how we could derisk pre-stage opportunities as the very first investor and provide support via customer acquisition, finance products, simulations, and hiring. In 2020 we offered investors opportunities to pick their risk profile from seed stage venture to alternatives like project finance or leasing structures for the exploding universe of new, distributed, global city infrastructure. We’ve had our share of luck too, most notably the events set in motion by the 30 by 30 battery initiative ($30 per kWh for battery storage in 2030).

Stranded Asset Shock — Swiss RE’s move to new risk models shook the entire financial world as it implied that many assets, especially real estate, would need to be repriced (in retrospect, we were fortunate to have rather minimal exposure to real estate). CIOs scrambled to reformulate strategies. At the same time, it became clear that 30 by 30 targets were well on track and the impact of stranded fossil fuel assets became unavoidable.

The New GBP — Perhaps most notable is the Global Battery Pack (GBP) formed via alliances between big tech (data center are now 25% of energy demand), construction, mining and auto OEMs following the China energy storage trade pact in 2025. The GBP is now central to GHG reduction but also resilience as it powers so much of the mobile autonomous homes to offshore solar desal platforms.

BYOI (Bring Your Own Infrastructure) — Africa started the decade with rolling blackouts and water shortages but today many African communities lead the world in use of distributed solar and battery storage. This new infrastructure unlocked lower cost, resilient infrastructure from micro waste treatment to light electric vehicles. BYOI has also been embraced in India, driving down costs and making it an inevitable path for most communities. Roads remain critical, but many pipes and wires have given way to cheap, portable, reliable community-scale appliances.

Electrification of All the Things — The start of the decade saw continued disinformation from private enterprise and petrostates looking to delay the inevitable demise of dinosaur juice. It was less clear at the time, but this was also at the heart of election interference around the world. Today, truthiness bots have pushed back some of the noise and votes and consumers have accelerated adoption of roadmaps like Project Drawdown.

Instant Commutes — Access to talent ultimately won out over old-school centralized organizations. It’s now the norm to meet founders who are somewhat nomadic and working with co-founders spread across multiple cities. The Van Life movement matured into nomadic co-living (enabled in part by low-cost, portable infrastructure and large investor appetite for the assets as single family homes fell out of favor). Short-haul electric flight joined intercity AVs to enable teams to keep some aspects of IRL over increasingly long distances.

Perhaps the biggest change has been remote schooling. Home schooling and online education startups paved the way for this, but so did the massive adoption of Discord and eSports. Communities were already well established online, but they seemed at odds with placemaking. That’s no longer the case for a growing percentage of the population who are enjoying the multiple benefits from lower insurance costs to more flexible access to job opportunities.

VC&R&D — The massive growth of corporate VC at the start of the decade gave way to a broader rebuilding of corporate R&D programs. Larger firms regularly team up with startups to provide distribution in the top 100 cities arounds the world (along with localized regulatory compliance), capital and critical technology components from machine vision to low cost electric actuators.

Global Landing Pads — The most successful startups today have built geographic-specific partnerships to enable expansion. Some of this might be attributed to more regional protection or state governments, but there have been many other benefits including local capital and localization which requires navigation of much stricter laws about where data is housed and on what infrastructure (often this means choosing between Chinese, US, or EU data center protocols).

Startup Policymaking — Procurement has stubbornly resisted change, forcing most startups to wait until they’re further along to seriously engage with local governments. However, policymakers have proved to be one of startups’ most important allies. They’ve worked hard to convene key stakeholders and include startups when incumbents tried to steer policies to narrower interests. Many cities now recognize that supportive policy has played a key role in attracting new talent and solutions.

Miseducation of Founders — A decade ago, founders were focused exclusively on raising equity. Some of this was a hangover from the financial crisis of 2008 because bank lending was more constrained, but this was also a period of singular focus on software companies and “asset lite”. Over the last decade, Urban Us has helped to build tools and resources for new generation of startups that build and own assets and sell less equity, ultimately keeping more upside for employees. Today’s notable startups don’t just live on screens and clouds but all over the physical environment from roads to living rooms.

Post Consumer — People laughed when Tesla announced the Beskar Edition Cybertruck. We moved from asking people to do good to simply offering better products and services that also captured the broader public benefits of low or no GHGs and improved resilience. Who would have imagined that Star Wars might be used to convince coal rollers to abandon the dark side? But more utility, more fun, and lower total cost of ownership also has a way of making it the obvious choice to use an EV or Tiny Home Timeshare.

Tactical Urbanism 2.0 — Bike lanes still seemed controversial in cities like Los Angeles or Sao Paulo, but instant temporary lanes made it possible to quickly test impacts on traffic and retail. For folks who had been tracking the benefits, there has been little surprise. Overwhelmingly, most temporary bike lanes were converted to permanent fixtures. We’ve also seen more cities completely remove cars from some streets, enabled in large part by semi-autonomous cargo bikes.

Urban Privacy — The massive deployment of video, audio, and device tracking gave way to new consumer privacy tools. Consumers opted out of facial recognition databases but opted into sharing water and energy demand data to better optimize infrastructure.

Urban Us performed better than we dared to hope. Top decile financial returns would have been enough in 2020, but the public benefits were what we really needed.

  • Urban Us portfolio has played a significant role in getting the world’s largest cities on track to zero emissions, while reducing risk by a factor of 10 for people and assets.
  • Investor returns across private equity, credit and asset management are expected to exceed 25% for 2029, outperforming public markets for the tenth consecutive year.
  • Over 1000 startup teams now have a combined value of $100b and have secured $50b in private capital.
  • 10 companies are now publicly traded. 90 teams have been acquired by sector leaders in transportation, real estate, technology, construction, energy, water and waste management.

As we look back on the ʼ20s, the stranded assets crash looks to have been a positive shift to get us far ahead of schedule for most communities working towards zero emissions and vastly improved resilience. As we add our one thousandth portfolio company, we’re grateful to the founders who have taken the risks and turned one of the most miraculous ecosystems for innovation into a source of tremendous public benefits.

About Urban Us

Urban Us finances and accelerates promising startups and emerging assets to upgrade cities for climate change. Urban Us has invested in over a thousand companies focused on GHG reduction, resilience and urban densification to get the world’s biggest cities on track to zero emissions in the next decade. In addition, cities are now able to avoid the worst losses from climate change fueled risks like fire and floods. Urban Us financial returns benefit investors like city pension funds, universities, foundations as well as city-building corporate partners sectors such as energy, transportation, real estate, construction, and waste.

Startups fighting climate change by upgrading cities