Urban innovation on display at Smart City Startups conference

Curtis Tonge explains to Jed Hoffman, (center) and his brother Isaac Hoffma, (right) and mother Joana Hoffman, (back) about energy managment at Smart City Startups, which had about 100 startups demoing their products, all products that help cities work beter. This took place at the Wynwood Warehouse Project.
Curtis Tonge explains to Jed Hoffman, (center) and his brother Isaac Hoffma, (right) and mother Joana Hoffman, (back) about energy managment at Smart City Startups, which had about 100 startups demoing their products, all products that help cities work beter. This took place at the Wynwood Warehouse Project. Miami Herald staff

Inside and outside a Wynwood warehouse on a hot, rainy Thursday, startups were proudly demonstrating electric skateboards for city commuting, a city bench that doubles as a power station, new concepts in bike sharing and plenty of energy-saving products and services for homes, businesses and governments.

The startup festival, which was open to the public, featured about 100 startups and kicked off Smart City Startups, a two-day urban tech conference showcasing startups, entrepreneurs, new research and ideas that are transforming cities. Hundreds of people crowded into the Wynwood Warehouse Project and nearby LightBox theater for demos and talks. The conference, now in its second year, is being produced by Shaun Abrahamson and Stonly Baptiste, co-founders of Miami-based Urban.Us, an investment fund focused on supporting startups that make cities better.

Festival-goers were introduced to emerging tech being used to solve pressing urban issues in areas such as energy consumption, mobility, sustainable building, governance and public safety. Fueling this trend is this global urban reality: More than half the world now lives in cities, and in 30 years, 70 percent will live in cities, Abrahamson said. Large cities now consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and create over 70 percent of global CO2 emissions. In the United States, 80 percent of residents already live in cities, stretching resources.

Some of the startups that participated in the festival help budget-strapped cities provide services more efficiently and save money, such as SmartProcure of Fort Lauderdale, which offers an easy way to find out what other government agencies paid for contracts, offering transparency. Michigan-based MiniRent showed off a platform for municipalities to share large equipment, such as excavators and street sweepers. TransitMix, a software tool for quickly mapping transit routes and calculating costs, was the crowd favorite at a startup contest during the event. Co-founder Tiffany Chu said she has meetings lined up with Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach transit authorities on Friday.

Sandra Richter’s startup, Soofa, makes a smart city bench with a solar-powered charging station. “We took something every city has a lot of — benches — and makes them a place where they can charge their phones,” said Richter, who introduced the product at the White House Maker Faire last summer. “But it doesn’t stop there. The benches can be loaded with sensors collecting data on all kinds of uses.” The University of Miami will get a bench on Friday, she said.

Your park or campus doesn’t have smart benches yet? Perhaps you can charge your phone and protect the environment, too? Woosh is installing purified water stations in parks (complete with WiFi and electricity) in a half-dozen U.S. cities and Tel Aviv to encourage people to refill their bottles rather than buy disposable plastic ones.

Ludovic Roche, CEO and co-founder of PWRstation, was showing off his company’s portable, retractable solar power system. He is finding lots of interest in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for his product that unfolds to cover 480 square feet (60 by 8 feet), and is planning to go through the certification process for the U.S. market soon. For the startup, which has offices in Miami and Switzerland, ease of installation and the retractability are key differentiators, Roche said. Hurricane coming? Retract them. Moving? Take it with you. “We’re a product, not a project,” Roche said.

Direct Energy decked out a trailer with the latest innovations in smart appliances for the connected home that will tell you if you left something on the stove or signal unhealthy gases in the air. Also on display: Nest for energy and Rachio for water conservation.

MeterHero, which launched in California last year, creates rebate programs linking your water and gas company and issues cash rebates based on your conservation habits.

Existing utility-based rebate programs fund discounts on purchases like low-flow shower heads and toilets, but MeterHero is the first to offer cash for conservation. Rebates, which are funded by organizations, companies or individuals, are paid at $1 for each 100 gallons of water saved, 10 kilowatt hours of electricity saved, or 100 cubic feet of natural gas saved. Participants can earn $75 or more per month, the company says.

MeterHero and the Florida Clean Water Network announced a partnership this week to encourage Floridians to conserve water and energy. The Florida Clean Water Network is sponsoring conservation rebates for homeowners across the state who track their water and energy savings through MeterHero.

Of course, no tech conference would be complete without drones. While a booth inside showed how a construction drone works and the high-resolution images it collects, everyone wanted to see a drone fly. Dodging the rain, Trevor Duke was sending them up and down in the parking lot, while riders nearby tested out the OneWheel, an electric skateboard for personal mobility. Duke owns Icarus Arials and is a drone pilot for SkyCatch, which is putting drones to work to automate processes at construction sites around the world; people program the machines and push a button to send them to work.

The conference continues Friday with The Summit, a smaller, more intimate event for invited urban-tech startups, government officials and nonprofits from around the world, with discussions about procurement, city-startup partnerships, harnessing early adopters, and capital raising on the agenda.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

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