From Bright Idea to a New Company: ITS Entrepreneurs

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FALL, 2014 -- In between classes, homework, research projects and seminars, inspiration suddenly strikes. “What if...” morphs into a practical application to help solve a seemingly intractable problem: detecting how traffic is functioning on a roadway, keeping buses from falling behind schedule, driving a vehicle more efficiently and safely or even parking more quickly and easily. With long hours of work and help from the university community, a new product is born. Here are four that began in the fertile minds of ITS student and faculty and traveled to the marketplace. 

Sensys Networks

Who: ITS Professor Pravin Varaiya and fellow UC Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science grads, Robert Kavaler and Amine Haoui founded the company.

What: Sensys Networks is the world’s largest provider of integrated wireless traffic detection and integrated traffic data systems. It provides wireless vehicle detection solutions that allow transportation agencies to obtain and utilize accurate, real-time data. Unlike inductive loops, Sensys Networks' wireless vehicle detection systems can be installed wherever detection is needed without digging up pavement to install it and regardless of the pavement’s condition. Unlike video detection it performs in all weather and lighting conditions. The company, based in Berkeley, California, had a record second quarter in 2014. Sensys Networks now has more than 200 customers and 45 partners in 20 countries throughout the world. 
 
When: The company was founded in 2003.
 
How it came to be: The initial idea for wireless detectors came from research funded by Caltrans and the National Science Foundation. 
 
“We experimented with two sensing modalities: acoustic and magnetic,” recalled Varaiya.  “Engine and tire noise made the acoustic sensor unable to distinguish between vehicles in adjacent lanes, and so acoustic sensing was abandoned. The magnetic sensor on the other hand proved to be very versatile in detecting vehicles, measuring speed, magnetic signature-based vehicle re-identification to estimate travel times, and signature based vehicle classification.”  
 
From proof of concept based on research to a product that could prove itself in the marketplace took nearly five years.  Sensys today employs about 80 people and has 150 customers in 40 states, and 10 countries. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America recognized Sensys Networks' VDS240 wireless vehicle detection system as the “Best Innovative Technology for 2008.”
 
Development of the product was supported by “sweat and venture funding,” said Varaiya.  “Throughout the research and development stages, encouragement from Caltrans staff helped overcome the inevitable obstacles that arise in a startup.  Caltrans today is a major Sensys customer,” he added.
 

 Automatic

 
Who: ITS alumnus, Jerry Jariyasunant, who received his Ph.D. in 2012, and Thejo Kote from UC Berkeley’s I School.
 
What: Automatic is a connected car platform that builds a small plug-in device that connects a driver’s phone to a car’s onboard computer when driving. It helps save gas and increases safety. It reminds drivers where they parked and calls for help in the event of a crash. Similar to a biofeedback device, Automatic provides subtle audio cues when drivers brake too hard, accelerate too fast, or speed. This in turn helps drivers go farther on a tank of gas and pump fewer harmful emissions into the air. At the end of the week the companion smartphone app scores a customer’s driving as well as fuel costs incurred. 
 
When: The company was formed in 2011, launched publicly in 2013 and today has 50 employees.
 
How it came to be: “This product really grew out of my thesis, which was about providing feedback for people about their travel choices—how much time it took to travel, how many calories were used, how much CO2 was emitted,” said Jariyasunant. “Professors Joan Walker and Raja Sengupta were my advisors. Automatic is similar to the travel feedback project that I explored in my thesis, only it’s for vehicles.”
 

Via Analytics

 
Who: Chancellor’s Professor Carlos Daganzo and three ITS alumni, Juan Argote, Dylan Saloner and Ethan Xuan.
 
What: Via Analytics is a California benefit corporation that began with Tempo, an application to prevent bus bunching. This maddening phenomenon is common to transit agencies around the world. Buses tend to fall out of sync and bunch together arriving at stops late and increasing passenger wait time.
 
When: In 2012 ago, the fledgling company tested Tempo on one bus line in San Sebastian, Spain.  
The successful test led the Spanish transit agency to expand Tempo to four more lines. Tempo and an expanding suite of tools is being adopted by a number of other transit agencies around the world.
 
The company has grown quickly to include a broader platform to help transit agencies plan, operate and communicate more efficiently. The platform includes Ecovia, which delivers feedback to drivers to help them reduce their fuel usage; AVI, which provides low-cost automatic vehicle location; Vault a storage service for transit data; VTFS, which allows a subset of Vault data to be made public and in turn encourages new innovations by third party developers; and, VIZ, which includes free, real-time analysis tools and a powerful platform for generating historical reports. VIZ also includes real-time passenger information through an award-winning application developed at the University of Washington and currently used by New York City’s MTA among several other major transit agencies who like the low cost and flexibility of open-source.
 
How it came to be: Tempo emerged from a control algorithm originally developed by Professor Daganzo, which was then refined by ITS Ph.D. students Josh Pilachowski, Argote and Xuan. For nearly two years, Argote, Xuan and Saloner worked six nights a week to write software to adapt the algorithm to the real world. VIA has offices in SkyDeck, a downtown Berkeley startup program from UC Berkeley. The founders established VIA ANALYTICS as a California benefit corporation to enable them to pursue environmental and social goals as well as the bottom line.  VIA ANALYTICS is planning to release VIZ as open-source software so that anyone can download and use it for free.
 
“It’s good code karma,” said Saloner. “We don’t think of it at as giving something away because we get back a lot of value for transit agencies, our business and transit users. We can afford to do this because we’re growing quickly off revenue from our transit synchronization and database products.”
 

Vatler   

 
Who: Hamza Ouazzani Chahdi and Thomas Cottin with help from a French engineering professor.
 
What: Vatler is an on-demand valet service designed to save users’ time while reducing congestion and greenhouse emissions caused when drivers circle and search for parking in San Francisco. Vatler, a mash-up of “valet” and “butler,” allows drivers to leave a car at their destination where they are met by a valet who takes the car and parks it at a nearby garage. At the end of a workday or meeting, drivers use the app to have the valet return the car to them. The cost? Twenty dollars in San Francisco’s SOMA or Mission districts and $35 in the Financial District.
 
When: Vatler was launched in July, 2014.
 
How it came to be: The two co-founders, students at École Polytechnique in France, were part of a four-month ITS exchange program, the "Silicon Valley Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program," now in its second year, for visiting engineering students interested in gaining an entrepreneurial background. The two immediately focused on parking and came up with the idea of reserving space in garages in various neighborhoods and providing a safe, reliable service that saved drivers time and reduced congestion.  Six weeks after the company’s launch they had a couple of hundred users and are working on expanding to other areas of the city.
 
“We have received funding from Y-Combinator and are currently closing a round of angel investor financing,” reported Cottin.
 
 
 
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