Rene Perkins CA, founder and CEO of London-based startup CityMaaS, has a CV that does not look unusual for a founder; however, it is her personal experience, and especially her family and husband’s family, that has provided the inspiration and drive for her serial entrepreneurism. Joining TFN at the Subak Climate Summit held in London recently, Perkins spoke about her background, inspirations, and her time as a founder.
A Chinese immigrant, Perkins came to the UK to study accounting and finance, first at Nottingham, then in Birmingham as a postgraduate. A career in finance followed, working for the likes of EY and HSBC, but Perkins suggests it might almost be a family trait for her to found a startup eventually. “I was brought up in China, and my whole family have their own startups,” she said. “I always aspired to do my own thing, to create something of my own.”
She also had an obvious co-founder, her husband, Andy. Together, they started investigating possibilities before launching in sustainable transportation. Her first startup, eGen Electric Scooters, capitalised on the growing market for personal and sustainable mobility.
“It reduces congestion in cities because there is more space when it’s two- and three-wheelers instead of cars, as well as reducing emissions.” Perkins also capitalised on the benefits of restaurant delivery, a growth industry even before Covid transformed the restaurant delivery business.
However, Brexit and Covid restricted several options that Perkins was exploring, and she and her husband started planning their next move. “We are always itching; we are hardworking, problem-solving people. We were wondering, what’s next?”
Thinking about mobility as a service
The answer was CityMaaS, or Mobility-as-a-Service. And the idea was the child of both Perkins’ interest in mobility and the real problems that she saw her husband’s family facing. “Andy’s parents have fostered disabled children over the decades, and we saw on a daily basis the problems they faced.”
The issues included accessibility at venues, but also simple matters like transport. London Underground, for example, only has step-free access at around 40% of its stations, but then passengers still need to consider access requirements at other points of their journey and destination. “It’s frustrating, not being able to find accessibility information right at the beginning,” Perkins said. “Sometimes, we just have to adapt, but we started asking questions, doing some research and thinking.”
Perkins discovered that it was far from a niche problem. Although people often think of wheelchair users or mobility restrictions when they consider accessibility, it’s actually far wider-ranging. It’s estimated that around 20% of the population has something that limits their accessibility, but this is largely hidden because people have learned adaptation strategies or simply changed their behaviours. The market is worth £274 billion a year in the UK.
CityMaaS seeks to make a difference where it is possible. “We know we cannot invest in a station or make somewhere accessible, we don’t have the funds or resources.” However, Perkins and CityMaaS instead provides the information, so people can plan. “A lot of the problems stem from the lack of reliable information. Once you have that information, you can plan properly. So, that’s where our Mobility Map was born.”
CityMaaS also helps clients integrate accessibility information into their existing platforms. Their service, Assist Me, to ensure websites are accessible, needing just a single line of code to improve accessibility and identify changes that may need to be made.
Having experienced the frustration of institutional procurement, CityMaaS has focusing on SMEs for their products. “It took a lot of energy even exploring the public sector, and it was hard to access-decision makers,” Perkins recalls, “so we changed our strategy to focus on small- and medium-sized companies, making our products more accessible and more cost-effective.”
The move has enabled Perkins to develop a scalable model, serviced by a small team. It’s also one that they are committed to protecting. While they are looking at securing investment in the future, the investor is as important as the money they bring. “We want to work with investors that understand what we are doing, and gives us the freedom to really experiment.” For Perkins, this is key to CityMaaS’s ability to make a difference. “We know investment is about profit, but for us, impact is first; when that increases, so does profit.”
For Perkins, the purpose is at the core of her, and CityMaaS’s, mission. She recommended the autobiography Set Free by Emma Slade, which details how fearing for her life during a violent robbery led her away from a successful banking career to become a Buddhist monk. Perkins is reflective when talking about the book’s impact on her, “everybody’s life and path is different, and purpose can be dynamic. But even when you aren’t totally confident, it doesn’t mean you won’t go down a certain route. You have a passion because you believe in what you are doing.”