Clara Brenner is a managing partner at the Urban Innovation Fund - a venture capital firm with a focus on startups that aim to impact urban communities. She’s also the co-founder of Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator that empowers startups to solve urban issues. Both endeavors were setup to nurture companies that harness tech for good - as in technological solutions geared toward fixing problems like homelessness and congestion in cities. Such startups are less than half as likely to get seed funding compared to traditional startups, and so Brenner’s fund aims to prove that investment in social good can be impactful while bringing significant returns for investors. Earlier last month, Brenner sat down with us to discuss her work in impact investing and the need for a holistic approach to urban issues.
How did you and Julie Lein create the Urban Innovation fund?
Julie and I wanted to see more startups tackling major urban problems and scaling their solutions to cities across the globe. So we launched what became the nationally recognized Tumml accelerator, focusing on investing and supporting promising urban tech entrepreneurs. Over the last three years, we invested in 26 startups – building a portfolio of high-growth, early stage urban innovators. In order to cement ourselves as investment leaders for urban innovation, we recently launched the Urban Innovation Fund, a venture capital firm that provides seed funding and regulatory support for entrepreneurs tackling our toughest urban challenges. The goal is to be a launch point for major capital deployment within the urban technology sector. And, really, it’s a fantastic way for Julie and me to keep working together for the next 40 years.
Why did you decide to focus on urban issues? Have you personally worked on any of these issues with some of the companies in your fund?
I launched the Urban Innovation Fund with Julie Lein in June 2016. We provide seed funding and regulatory support to startups tackling our toughest urban challenges – helping them grow into tomorrow’s most valued companies. Julie and I first met as grad students at MIT Sloan where we chaired the Women in Management conference together. Through that experience, we learned that we loved working together and wanted to find other ways to build something meaningful. We ended up coming together around our love for startups solving city problems, think: transportation, energy delivery, and etc. Previously, we both had transformative experiences working for high-growth, urban-focused startups. I was an early employee at Fundrise, a leading crowd-investment platform for commercial real estate, and Julie at Revolution Foods, a healthy school meal provider that has served over 200 million meals across the U.S. to date.
What are some of the most innovative companies you’ve funded and what strides and success have they had thus far?
To date, Julie and I have funded startups developing products and services that have the potential to touch the lives of millions – and hopefully even billions - of city dwellers. For example, in 2014 we were one of the earliest investors in Chariot, the commuter shuttle service that crowdsources its routes from the community. Excitingly, they were acquired by Ford Motor Company in September 2016 to build out their Smart Mobility offering. We invest in early stage startups, and we work with them to flesh out their business models…We recently invested in two water-focused startups, Valor Water Analytics and APANA. Valor is a big data solution for water utilities to help them with financial and conservation planning. And APANA is a hardware and software IoT company that helps industrial users like Costco better manage their water use.
Are there any major urban issues that you think tech can’t solve alone? And which other sectors should participate in those solutions?
Tech is not a panacea – it can’t solve every major urban problem by itself. To effectively tackle our hairiest community challenges like affordable housing and homelessness, we need a toolkit of solutions – from the tech, nonprofit, government and corporate sectors. In particular, we need strong political leadership to bring together these constituencies around a shared vision for our cities. That said, technology can absolutely support these larger efforts. A great example is HandUp, a crowdfunding platform for the homeless and the organizations that support the homeless. This SoMa-based startup is partnering with Mayor Ed Lee’s office to better connect individuals in need with services and support.
Madison Maxey is a tinker for the 21st century. As a selfdescribed creative technologist, Maxey focuses on e-textiles and wearables with the potential to change the role apparel and fabrics can play in our lives.
She grew up in San Diego, where her mother worked as a flight attendant and her father was an aerospace engineer at Northrup Grumman, which seeded her interest in technology. The California native began her career in fashion at age 16, taking internships at Tommy Hilfiger and Nylon Magazine before she was accepted to Parsons School of Design.
After less than a year at the esteemed college, Maxey became the first fashion designer to receive a Thiel Fellowship - a grant that enables students to quit or defer their enrollment in university in the pursuit of building their own companies and products in the real world. As a fellow in 2013, Maxey started her own startup called The Crated. The company prototyped a myriad of products, including a temperature-controlled light jacket, wearable EKG monitor and a light-emitting diode dress, made with help from Zac Posen and Google and debuted at New York Fashion Week.
Instead of returning to college, she’s learned skills like coding by practicing them on her own projects. Maxey has gone on to receive residencies at Autodesk and The School of Visual Arts and Undercurrent, and serves on the board of the Urban Assembly Maker Academy - a school that’s focused on fabrications and design thinking. Last year, Maxey relaunched The Crated as Loomia in Brooklyn, New York. The company is pioneering flexible smart fabrics that conduct electricity in patterns, turning fabrics into circuits.
Maxey believes these e-textiles can impact not just apparel, but also furniture, industrial wear, and wristbands by bringing electricity to the products to track our biomarkers and potentially affect them for the better.
Since you dropped out of Parsons for the Thiel Fellowship, how did you learn the skills you needed to work on your projects?
I learn skills by working on projects. I think experiential learning is a great way to grow.
How did The Crated pivot to Loomia?
The name The Crated sounded like the opposite of what we want to be. It sounded boxed-in and restrictive. We think Loomia sounds much more future-minded and forward-thinking. Good things are always evolving, so we decided it was time to change the name.
What are you most excited about developing at Loomia? And why do you feel it’s important?
I’m excited about Loomia because we’re building foundational technology that will help the smart soft goods industry grow. It excites me to think that we might be able to make a technical contribution to an emerging industry.
Where do you think e-textiles will or should go in the next five years?
I hope that e-textiles will be industrialized and affordable in the next five years. Where there is great supply chain, there are great products.
Where are you in the process of simplifying the garment industry today?
Our entire supply chain for Loomia is domestic, so we’re getting closer to the goal of making it smart to manufacture soft goods and apparel in the states. As for pattern-making techniques, I’m working on it as a side project. Life is long, and I hope to complete the software someday.
What was the nature of your advising to the White House?
One of Michelle Obama’s assistants called me to discuss a workshop they were planning on e-textiles at the White House. I was glad to be able to orient her around the space.
You’ve worked at Autodesk, as well. What did you develop and what skills or spirit did you pick up while there?
I interned on an Autodesk 3D printing, working on writing code that would generate files for their SLA DLP printer. I returned for an artist residency last year and built a small plotter that extrudes conductive liquid onto textiles. I also worked in the wet lab on conductive ink formulas. I’m actually returning to Autodesk for another project in a few weeks. I’m deeply inspired by the level of curiosity there.
With climate change bringing such unusual weather patterns, could e-textiles that regulate body temp be a new green approach to heating, potentially replacing home air conditioners and furnaces?
I don’t know if body temp regulation can replace central air or heating, but I do think it can give us ways to stay comfortable in a changing climate. Especially for the elderly or disabled, external body temp regulation can be particularly helpful.