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The Story of Soofa: Turning Smart Cities Into Social Ones

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Soofa is not the first company to think of smart city technology, but they may be one of the first to think about the heart behind this kind of industry.

Co-Founder and CEO Sandra Richter grew up in Freiburg, the city “with the most sunshine hours” in Germany.

Soofa Founders Sandra Richter, Jutta Friedrichs, and Nan Zhao (left to right).
Soofa Founders Sandra Richter, Jutta Friedrichs, and Nan Zhao (left to right).

“There was a lot of thinking about sustainable transportation and solar panels,” says Richter. “There are specific neighborhoods in the city that are entirely off-grid.”

Her father American and her mother German, Richter’s upbringing carried elements of the American Dream, with added emphasis on sustainable energy. However, despite seeing the positives of solar energy from a young age, Richter noticed that there was a very uninteresting,  pre-Tesla feeling to sustainable energy.

Richter went to school at Berlin University of the Arts. She did her bachelor’s in Strategic Communication and Planning, and her master’s in Communication in Social and Economic Contexts. The question of “How do you make renewable energy sexy?” was one that came up over and over again in her studies, and it persisted when she went to work.

“I worked for an energy supplier in Berlin that was working on the BMW Mini E project, and I was there helping them figure out how to bring it to market. More than that, we wanted to make the electric car a desirable object.”

She eventually discovered the MIT Media Lab through their foldable electric car, and reached out to see if she could get involved in figuring out how to get more people to use those types of vehicles.

Richter applied to MIT and ultimately joined the Media Lab’s Changing Places group.

“I fell in love with everyone and everything in the Media Lab. They have a culture of getting stuff done and a culture of inventing, moving past boundaries, and sometimes, not even realizing any boundaries are there. They gave me the courage to found a company.”

Soofa came to be when Richter observed that a lot of marketing dollars were being put into smart cities without much action. She wanted to find a way to deploy smart city sensors and technologies in a way that was consumer facing.

“We pitched the idea of Soofa benches; the name comes from Smart Urban Furniture Appliance. We changed the U to two Os because we thought it was cuter. We also thought the two O’s had a bit of a Google oomph to it.”

The team went to Verizon to see if they could get sponsorship for putting benches in the city and, as other companies got involved, investors started showing interest in writing checks to the team.

“The thing was, we were at MIT. We were a research institution. So we kept thinking, ‘How do we do this?’ And actually, the smartest way at the time was to found a company so we can accept the sponsorship money. We needed to have a bank account, and in order to have a bank account, we needed to have a corporation.”

Sandra Richter (MIT), Nan Zhao (MIT), and Jutta Friedrichs (Harvard) founded Soofa in 2014. Since then, the focus has expanded towards making better, more social cities. In this spirit, they make two core products.

The Soofa Bench in action.
The Soofa Bench in action.

The Soofa Bench is a solar-powered bench that can charge phones and measure activity in outdoor spaces; it is available as a full bench set, as well as a core that doesn’t include a place to sit. The bench launched in Boston in 2014, and now the bench is available in over 75 cities.

Soofa recently held a party in July to celebrate the launch of their newest product called Soofa Sign. The product is a modern day billboard which utilizes a solar-powered E Ink display and it is connected via 3G for a continuous stream of updated content. It can display schedules, artwork, social media posts, job postings, jokes, targeted advertisements, event schedules, and more.

The city of Boston has been an early adopter of this new product, as they were first to pilot Soofa’s Sign in Faneuil Hall.

The social component to these signs come in at the content level. There is a heavy emphasis on community-level messaging. Richter said that area businesses are showing interest in the Soofa Sign because it allows them to tell their company’s story through advertising. In another use case, the sign can tell a passerby about a local free concert happening at that very moment, only a few blocks away. In this way, the sign can connect a person to their community.

Soofa Sign
The Soofa Sign gives directions to points of interest in Boston.

Soofa faces competition in the smart city space from companies like Sidewalk Labs and CIVIQ Smartscapes, but according to Richter, Soofa has a few things to offer: sustainability, easy installation (only 4 bolts, meaning no hard wiring), and heart.

“I actually don’t love the term smart city, because the smart city sometimes forgets the social city. Soofa’s mission is to connect people in the real world. Not just through Facebook, but also in a park or bus stop, where people can be friendly with each other.”

Alexander Culafi is a contributor at VentureFizz. You can follow him on Twitter @culafia.

Images courtesy of Soofa.

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Soofa is the neighborhood news feed that connects a community with screens everyone can see and anyone can use.

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