If further proof were needed that mobility is a hot topic, sceptics need only have joined the queue extending round the corner of U+I on Howick Place in London on the evening of Thursday 23rd March.
An impressive group of startup founders and investors had gathered to ponder the future of this rapidly evolving sector at InMotion Ventures’ Investing in the Future of Transport and Mobility event, and it proved to be a fascinating evening. Here are some key insights.
Frustration still breeds innovation
Stefanie Lemcke was like many working mothers: spending too much time driving her kids to school and not enough time getting through her own daily tasks. In the meantime, traffic congestion soared and her productivity levels dropped.
“I was convinced that someone would fix this problem,” she recalls. “They didn’t, so I solved my own problem.”
Lemcke had been working with innovation and technology companies for several years. She spotted an opportunity to create a ride-sharing service for schools and active families. GoKid launched in 2015 and is now available in 350 cities across more than 30 countries.
Being the target customer herself informed her product development, among other things. Virality is “built in”, so parents must invite other parents via the app to get the best out of it. It’s identifying existing user behaviour and “putting tech behind it”.
Established networks are key access points
SPLT, another ride-sharing scheme and InMotion portfolio investment, was co-founded by Anya Babbitt to help employees share commutes and save money. She spoke about B2C being the “graveyard of carpooling companies”, noting that consumers just aren’t loyal to the system.
By partnering with companies and universities, you “build in loyalty and density from day one”. Then, “the human becomes your main competition”. Next, Babbitt is hoping to tap the school teams market in the US, where more than 33 million pupils play sport.
Another example is what3words, a super accurate global addressing system that “gives everyone and everywhere a three-word address” in squares the size of 3m x 3m. The system encompasses 57 trillion of these squares.
Cofounder Jack Waley-Cohen said their focus is on modernising a sluggish incumbent rather than disrupting a market leader. “By using the postage system in partner countries such as Mongolia and Ivory Coast,” he explained, “the national database becomes our customer database.”
Patience is still a virtue
The temptation among startups is to dive into a new space and engage in a mad scramble for series investment. But the slow and steady approach clearly has its merits. Take Click Mechanic, for instance, which connects car owners with thousands of the best UK mechanics.
“Some of our partners are huge international companies,” said CEO Andrew Jervis. “That means more bureaucracy, so you need to think long-term and gradually build the relationship. On the flipside, many independent garages are living month-to-month, so it’s about talking to them in a language they understand, so they quickly grasp what you can offer.”
Growth takes more than money
Babbitt mentioned how InMotion’s support had allowed SPLT to hire the right calibre of people and thus provide a better product to consumers. But it’s about more than investment. It’s about “a shared vision for mobility and a commitment to tackling big problems in society”.
For Waley-Cohen, the challenge was finding a VC with the right global perspective in a market where “four billion people are without addresses, including huge swathes of the Middle East”.
Car brands are your allies
Rather than fear automotive brands or write them off as a new generation turns to car-sharing, several startups were keen to join forces. Lemcke had the vision from day one when devising GoKid. “As GPS navigation is more accurate in cars than on smartphones, it makes sense,” she said.
Babbitt is hoping to partner with OEMs on a P2P product this year. Meanwhile, Waley-Cohen is excited by the possibilities of autonomous vehicles. “What3words is the first addressing system designed to get information from person to machine, quickly and accurately,” he said.
“A common complaint among car owners is how bad the voice recognition is. If you want to get from A to B, whether driving yourself or in a self-driving machine, you need to know exactly where B is.”
The market will continue to fragment
This was the prediction of InMotion’s managing director Sebastian Peck, echoed by Oxford Capital director Miles Kirby. “The shift to electric is coming,” said Kirby. “It’s a great opportunity to move from physical ownership to fractional ownership and then Mobility as a Service.”
In Kirby’s eyes, pure ownership will always be an option, as will public transport. But it’s the wider experience that will assume greater importance: “Intelligently working out the best route, having the right seat settings, your favourite music playing …”
Martin Mignot, partner at Index Ventures and keen cyclist, was very bullish about the future of the city – less cars, more space for alternatives and affordable housing. Aside from more bike-sharing schemes, he expects there to be lots of “cheap, pre-routed Chinese vans and buses”, with more autonomy for drivers in remote areas.
So, there you have it, a decidedly rich assortment of insight from a wide range of perspectives. What is certainly evident from this event, what ties everything together, is that interest in – and enthusiasm for – this burgeoning industry is growing. And, more so, it’s inclusive and extremely differentiated. Whether you’re an innovator, an investor or a longstanding transport stalwart, future mobility and smart transportation is an exciting and extremely rewarding space to be in.
And it’s only just the beginning.