The Urban Works Innovation Challenge supports innovators and entrepreneurs who are passionate about producing viable and interdisciplinary tech-based solutions for transforming 21st century cities in India into sustainable and safe work environments. Almost 600 million Indians will live in cities by 2030. Rapid urbanization poses serious environmental and societal challenges, including degrading air quality, rising plastic waste, hindered mobility, mental health problems, and reduced safety for women. In this evolving landscape, there is growing recognition that the country’s urban workforce requires workplaces and city-wide ecosystems to become more productive, innovative, and inclusive. Solutions that make use of contemporary technology can play a critical role in addressing these needs, thereby making work environments sustainable and safe for all.
This year, the Urban Works Innovation Challenge, organized by the Mumbai Center in partnership with the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and supported by the RMZ Foundation, chose Innovating for the Pandemic as one the core themes. Some of the selected startups worked directly on solutions for the pandemic, but all of them learned valuable lessons from this time and converted challenges into opportunities - overcoming operational uncertainties, developing new tech, driving digital adoption, improving financial planning, changing work culture, and optimizing resources. Three teams from India were selected as winners. With guidance from the Urban Works mentors, these startups showed incredible resilience in the face of the unforeseen pandemic. Their main takeaway was that innovation can help overcome negative externalities. Since great businesses are almost always built against the odds, this resilient and innovative mindset of the startups bodes well for their future.
2020-2021 Winning Startups
Winners of the Urban Works track of the Columbia Venture Competition
In the third year of the Urban Works Innovation Challenge, a rigorous training curriculum was developed for the selected startups so that their promising innovations for job security for migrant workers, sustainable use of water, and sanitizing indoor areas could be converted into investible, market-ready enterprises. Faculty and staff from Columbia Engineering and Columbia Entrepreneurship, along with local experts from India, coached these companies on important business principles through workshops, seminars, and one-on-one meetings from April-October 2021.
What is a strong demonstration of an early-stage startup’s success? A technically sound, commercially viable on-ground pilot.
What makes a startup investment-ready? Achieving product-market fit while maintaining good customer relationships and growing in different geographies/markets ensures investment readiness.
A strong believer in innovation, Ioannis Kymissis, Professor and Chair of Columbia’s Department of Electrical Engineering, speaks to the Center about innovation, startups, and mentoring Urban Works companies from India and the US.