The future is often forged from ideas that only a few are aware of in their early stages: Think Uber, Apple, Tesla. To look far down the road on mobility, Smart Cities Dive spoke with the $800 million investment arm of Toyota Motor Corp., Woven Capital. It’s a “hands-on investor” with a global mandate, said Nicole LeBlanc, a partner at Woven Capital focusing on mobility, sustainability and smart city investments.
Previously, LeBlanc was a partner at 2150, a venture capital firm that invests in technology companies seeking to sustainably reimagine the urban environment. She also served as director of investments for Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation unit within Google that works with developers and cities to build more sustainable, innovative and equitable places around the world.
Innovation, climate strategy and the emerging talent that city governments are attracting give LeBlanc hope for the future, she says.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: Tell us about the different ways in which Woven Capital views mobility.
NICOLE LEBLANC: The first one is transitioning away from just pure cars to the future of mobility. The second one is expanding mobility access: thinking about different types of vehicles, different form factors, multimodal transportation.
Then having to take that up a level and think about how to integrate that into mobility infrastructure because that’s really one of the biggest hiccups. Infrastructure is just such a core component of that, [and for] a lot of companies like Toyota, it’s not part of our remit. So how do we integrate those two things together?
There are many new technologies in transportation, from self-driving cars to flying taxis. What do you see as the biggest challenge for cities in adapting to these new forms of mobility?
There’s digital innovation, physical innovation and policy innovation. Those three things need to work together. You have to have collaboration.
Digital innovation is fairly straightforward. Physical innovation is often more difficult to figure out. How do you fund it? It might be regulated, there could be a lot of requirements that startup people aren’t used to having to work at. That’s been a bit challenging for the venture world to figure out, how to fund physical innovation and merge it with digital innovation. But it’s getting there: You’re seeing lots of great hardware startups, you’re seeing lots of great startups in the built environment.
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What about on the policy side?
Some cities are doing a great job of attracting young talent that are really tech-forward, and they’re changing the internal conversations. You’re getting some really exciting talent wanting to go work for cities because they see what’s happening on the digital and physical side, and they see the opportunity. They really want to figure out, how do you pull all those things together? Cities are getting chief innovation officers, and cities [are] now starting to be part of the conversation instead of being scared of new technology.
How does an automaker, whose business has traditionally been to sell vehicles, fit in?
One of the things about venture capital is that you have a traditional business, whether that’s making cars or whether it’s a chemical company or whatever, [but] having the venture arm, we can explore new revenue models, new cost-saving models, new ways of innovation. We can experiment and share that back [with Toyota] so that when it’s ready to fit into the mainstream, we’re able to do that.
What do you expect to see in 2024 and beyond?
In 2024, you’re going to see a lot more very, very specific climate applications that are being deployed, and they’re 100% being motivated by either the stick or the carrot, by [regulations] or by incentives. Companies are basically reorganizing to make sure that they take advantage of them and that their customers are able to take advantage of them.
Climate is becoming much more operational. The talent that’s moving into the climate sector is really going to start to accelerate that. So five years out, everybody’s going to have a climate strategy.
You sound optimistic about the future of climate and mobility.
I am an optimist. There are lots of hiccups, and there are lots of challenges, but there are really good people in all of those areas that maybe haven’t traditionally worked [in them]. And the conversations and the outputs that they’re bringing together, to me are really exciting.