Erin Klem  | May 9, 2014

Five Tech Startups That Make Cities A Lot Smarter

The term “smart cities” is a bit ambiguous. What exactly are we talking about here? Leagues of Robocops roaming the streets? Local bureaucrats armed with iPads?Drones?

Not quite, but not too far off, either. Tech companies working in the smart city industry focus on using the massive amounts of data that cities and localities already collect to solve typical problems, including transportation or utility issues. The goal is to provide a smarter life for the modern urban dweller.

And it is a market that is burgeoning: the global smart cities market is expected to grow from $654.57 billion in 2014 to $1,266.58 billion by 2019, according to a recent study by Markets and Markets Analysis

The competitors we heard in the Challenge Cup smart cities categories included everything from finding a parking spot (or renting out the one you’ve got, courtesy of Pink Park) to detecting nuclear threats (thanks for that sobering-yet-cheerful pitch, Silverside Detectors). 

What’s the Challenge Cup, you ask? Let me recap: A team from Washington D.C. incubator 1776 traveled to 16 cities around the world to find the best startups in the most regulated industries, including education, health care, smart cities and energy. Sixty-four winning startups from those 16 competitions will converge on Washington D.C. the week of May 12-17 to participate in the Challenge Festival.

It’s been quite a trip, and next week’s festivities promise even more nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat excitement. And Free Enterprise is along for the ride.

But back to smart cities: more than a few the Challenge Cup smart cities competitors were focused on getting citizens from point A to point B, and while we in gridlocked Washington D.C. certainly appreciate those efforts, here are five competitors who got us thinking outside the car.

1. Counterfeiting is a fast-growing problem, and the global economic and social impacts of counterfeiting and piracy will reach $1.7 trillion dollars by 2015 and put 2.5 million jobs at risk each year. But now, counterfeiters have met their match: ScanTrust empowers consumers or other stakeholders to check a product’s authenticity or learn about its origin by scanning a secure, copy-proof QR code with their mobile phone. The Beijing Challenge Cup smart cities winner is truly a global startup: the company is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, but cofounder Nathan Anderson is a small town boy from Vermont who moved to China in 2005. “From the start we also knew that we had to have a presence in China to achieve the impact we set out to achieve. With over 70% of global counterfeit products originating in the greater China region, any conversation on efforts to diminish illicit trade is not a conversation at all if it does not include China,” Anderson tells 1776.

2. San Francisco Challenge Cup winner HandUp allows Good Samaritan to assist with the food, clothing, and medical needs of individual homeless people right from their desktop computers. It works like this: The homeless create a profile, including a list of their specific needs, on HandUp’s website and carry a HandUp “business card” with them. Donors who visit the site can review and donate directly to any member they choose. A pilot program that ran from last August through December raised $20,000, helping seven HandUp members afford permanent housing. The startup has 100 members in San Francisco, with plans to scale nationwide. “There is a big interest right now in ‘tech for good,’” says HandUp Cofounder and CEO Rose Broome. “We’re seeing a renewed interest in building and solving problems that are really happening here in the community and more collaboration between tech and tech people and existing organizations that are focused on these problems, like for example, us.

3. Reaction, the Austin Challenge Cup winner in the smart cities category, builds a different kind of shelter: the Reaction Housing System, a rapid response, short-term emergency housing system that is flexible enough to meet any housing challenge. It is a kit of parts that primarily consists of housing units called Exos, accessories, and supporting infrastructure. The interior and exterior skins are made from a composite called Tegris, aka “poor man’s carbon fiber,” says founder and CEO Michael McDaniel. It is a super lightweight material that’s actually being used to armor vehicles for the military now and as air dams for NASCAR. The Reaction system offers a low-cost ($5,000 per unit), rapid response housing solution whether it is responding to the aftermath of an earthquake, wildfire, hurricane or manmade event. The company has seen huge demand—$400 million of inbound sales—before even bringing the product to market. “Reaction is so disruptive that has not only gotten the attention of FEMA, NASA, and Apple but we have visited all of them by invitation,” says McDaniel.

4. The team at Angry CitizenMoscow’s Challenge Cup winner, aims to give citizens a voice and let them complain about almost anything. The idea started almost a year-and-a-half ago when Angry Citizen founder Dmitry Kokh had trouble voicing complaints about the dangerous construction near the park where his children played. The company’s portal receives 500 messages a day, and has solved over 7,059 problems and counting, according to a recent article in TruthAtlas. “A lot of countries are moving toward online democracy and in Russia this is a very important trend,” Anna Nekrasova, business development director of Angry Citizen tells 1776 . “Because people in Russia want to improve all aspects of their social life… they are happy to use the tools in order to make their life better.”

5. Berlin smart cities Challenge Cup winner Hoard (formerly einFach) is kinda like a Dropbox for real stuff. Hoard Cofounders Anthony Forsans, Nicolai Prüsmann and Arne Peterson are working to make it easier to share or exchange physical items such as keys or a phone or even, a shirt that needs to be dry cleaned, through hoardspots, or lockers. The Hoard app tells you when and where a locker is available, then gives you a code to share that unlocks the hoardspot. Founders Anthony Forsans, Nicolai Prüsmann and Arne Peterson tell 1776 that they’re currently in beta testing in Germany, and want to research and look into the market in the U. S. with Amazon, Google and other delivery systems.

All 16 smart cities finalists will be participating in the Smart Cities Semifinals presented by Amazon on Thursday, May 15 here in Washington D.C. See a bracket of all the competitors here.