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


How did you go about getting the idea off the ground?

Lein: It was tough. We started doing the research early on, and continued building blocks for our mentorship board throughout the summer when we were being incubated at MIT. Moving out to San Francisco in September 2012 accelerated the process for us. Getting our 501(c)3 non-profit status was not easy, and Nixon Peabody really helped us expedite that. We got our first grant, $65,000 from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, in January of 2013 and we wouldn’t have been able to get it without non-profit status.

Applications for your first cohort just closed. How did you get the word out to entrepreneurs?

Lein: Entrepreneurs don’t necessarily self-identify as urban; they’ll identify in a particular sector, like waste and resource management or mobility. So reaching this group has been a challenge, and being able to reach out to them through social media — through things like Facebook and Twitter and blogs — has been incredibly important. It’s worked to our advantage in that people are starting to see us as a convener for all of these different folks who might not normally be in a room together. You know, government officials, startup entrepreneurs, people who fund the sharing economy, big companies like IBM.

I know it’s early on, but what kind of ideas are you seeing?

Brenner: There are some sectors that are pretty well represented, like transportation. It’s a lot easier for people to conceive of new business ideas when they’ve seen some early successes, and in San Francisco there are already [transportation-focused startups like] Getaround, Uber, Lyft, SideCar, and Zipcar. But we’ve been very excited to see a number of companies interested in dealing with issues like homelessness, or waste and resource management. Some we’ve been most surprised by have been in small business services: People looking to either support manufacturing and trade within urban areas or support small local businesses.

Companies that would serve other companies?

Brenner: An already-existing example might be a company like Smallknot, which helps small local businesses raise capital from the community. So, say you’re a local restaurant that’s been in the neighborhood for 30 years and your freezer breaks, and it’s like, `Either we can replace the freezer and fire a line cook, or we can have no freezer and keep our employee.’ With Smallknot, you can raise money from the community and buy a new freezer, and in exchange, donors get a free pizza or something.

Where would you like to be in a year or five?

Lein: We’d love to have this program be large enough that we can support two cohorts a year, and that in each of those two cohorts we can support ten companies each time.

Brenner: From a larger vision perspective, our real goal is to build a pipeline of these types of companies and be able to prove their worth to more institutional investors. I think right now, if you want to start the next Facebook, there’s a place for you to go to get resources and money. If you want to start the next social entrepreneurship product or service in rural Pakistan, there’s a place for you to go as well. We want to make it as attractive and seemingly as achievable to start a company that solves a problem in your own backyard. It’s getting people thinking differently, because everyone will be better if these issues get solved.

For more information on Tumml’s program, click here.

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