Improving City Living, One Startup at a Time

Tumml CEO Clara Brenner and President Julie Lein have a passion, and a proposition, for urban ventures

  • By Sandy M. Fernández
  • May 30, 2013

Photo Courtesy of SketchAway.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re doing it in or near a big city. More than 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If you’re among them, you’re probably well aware of the advantages to urban living: close proximity to an array of amenities; access to a wide range of cultural and culinary offerings; and transportation options that don’t need to include a car. But there are often downsides too -- crime, noise, congestion, and pollution to name a few. Enter Clara Brenner and Julie Lein, whose self-described “urban ventures accelerator” Tumml is meant to give a leg up to startups trying to improve high-density living areas.

We talked to them the day after applications closed for their first cohort. The five start-ups they choose will get $20,000 in seed funding; about $30,000 worth of in-kind services (such as legal help and work space in San Francisco’s The Hatchery, where Tumml is located); and a four-month learning curriculum with mentors such as Molly Turner of AirBnB, Tory Patterson of Catamount Ventures and John Tolva, Chief Technology Officer for the city of Chicago. At the end, of course, they’ll have a chance to pitch their ideas to potential funders. Tumml will take a five percent equity stake in each business.

DailyWorth: So, what is Tumml exactly?

Clara Brenner: We’re a non-profit with the mission of empowering entrepreneurs to solve urban problems. Think the next generation of Zipcar, or Revolution Foods—companies creating consumer-facing products and services that tackle city problems. We think there are real market opportunities there for entrepreneurs who are thinking creatively in this area.

Where did the idea come from?

Brenner: Julie and I met at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. We’d both had really good experiences working for what we call ‘urban impact companies’ — Julie worked at Revolution Foods and I worked for a company called Fundrise — we were just curious about why we weren’t seeing more companies like that naturally pop up.

What’s your theory?

Julie Lein: When we surveyed urban impact entrepreneurs, two findings stood out to us. The first was that there was a capital gap: Urban impact companies were less than half as likely as their traditional peers to receive seed-stage funding. This was partly because the capital requirement was more onerous than if you were just creating an app in your basement, for example. If you’re doing a bike share, you need a whole fleet of bikes.

The second thing was that these urban impact entrepreneurs really wanted a different kind of mentorship. They’re nearly twice as likely as their peers to want to connect with civic and government leaders, because they might need help with, say, securing permits for their bike share, or their food truck, or—like Uber—to change some regulation. So Tumml was really born out of the idea of trying to solve those two problems: One, providing some seed stage capital. And two, providing the right kinds of mentorship for these urban impact companies.

Keep reading to find out how Tumml was launched. 

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