Columbus welcomes urban problem solvers with new accelerator

Every American city wishes it could better support technology, entrepreneurship and infrastructure, unfortunately few actually have the resources to set truly ambitious goals into motion. But Columbus, Ohio, having secured $40 million in grants to improve access to transportation and ready itself for autonomous vehicles, is one city actually in a position to take risks. Its latest, a smart city accelerator assembled by Singularity UniversityNCT Ventures and American Electric Power (AEP), aims to simultaneously lure businesses to the region while building solutions to public sector problems.

Locally based NCT Ventures is putting up $1 million to form the new accelerator. Startups that have developed products and services that improve the operation of cities will be eligible for up to $100,000 in investment. Singularity University, the ambitious project of Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil, will offer specialized instruction and mentorship to each of the startups selected while AEP, a locally based electricity conglomerate, will be helping during the selection process, receiving its own training from Singularity and keeping an eye on startups along the way.

“Our intention is to find the best working companies, not just ideas that fit criteria,” explained Rich Langdale in an interview, managing partner at NCT Ventures.

NCT will have a financial interest in each of the startups selected, but Langdale told me that the firm aims to incubate rather than suffocate. Instead of prioritizing things like rights to follow on investment, NCT is collaborating with other Ohio investors as part of Venture Ohio, a statewide advocate for entrepreneurship. Singularity is taking a similar ideological approach, noting that it wants its relationship with startups in the cohort to last well beyond its artificial end date.

“We try to think of this as a lifetime partnership,” Nick Davis, vice president of corporate innovation for Singularity University, told me.

Columbus isn’t the first city in the United States to call a smart cities accelerator home. Washington D.C.’s Smart City Works has worked with startups like IHT and Capital Construction Solutions, companies bringing transparency to construction and enabling better monitoring of municipal water systems respectively. In New York City, Urban-X is doing much the same — supporting Envairo, a startup ensuring space is allocated optimally within large buildings and Citiesense, a startup bringing fresh data to real estate.

But before Columbus’s own program opens its doors in September, it will have to prove itself adept at balancing public and private interests. On one hand, it’s important that the accelerator itself be economically viable. If NCT is able to deliver returns to its own investors, that sends a signal to other investors that Columbus is capable of incubating real businesses that serve municipalities.

But that said, startups should also be addressing specific problems that are part of Columbus’s smart city initiative and directly contribute to the city’s growth. The city has been wrangling supplementary private dollars at an impressive pace in the wake of winning the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge and there is no shortage of mobility, transportation and infrastructure startups in need of capital and strategic partners — threading the needle is well within reach.

Applications to the program will open on May 15th. Additional information for interested parties can be found at the Singularity University site.