I Caught Up With An Austin Startup Providing Real-Time Transit Options

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Urbanites and UT students have a new way to get around asRideScout™ announced its formal launch in Austin this week. CEO Joseph Kopser and his team have built a real-time, mobile aggregator and comparison engine for ground transportation options. And with ties to the sharing economy and transit’s rising importance, they appear to be in a good spot.

Two big hooks provide the lure for the app. Its “best ride” ranking is an easy way to see pricing and estimated times. But the kicker is the breadth of options you get. Buses, transit, subways, taxis, limos, shuttles, car-sharing, and even pedicabs are included. The iPhone app has been out a month or so, and an Android version should be ready this Fall.

It’s been a quick ascent. Just last spring, RideScout was still embryonic before placing second at the HATCH Pitch Competition at last year’s SXSW. From there, Kopser and some of his West Point alums raised $350k  and started building in late July.

ridescout_ride_results_2Now it’s in a bit of a perfect storm. Cities are faced with infrastructure challenges everywhere, as traffic increases, roads are in need of repair, and urban populations continue to rise. The low-hanging fruit for many metros is to optimize what already exists. When buses or rail cars aren’t filled, those are idle resources that are funded with taxpayer dollars. That’s one of the pieces that’s caught the City of Austin’s attention.

“RideScout will push highly motivated citizens to alternative modes of transportation, helping to fill underutilized public transit capacity to keep more cars off the roads,“ said Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development for Capital Metro.

Hemingson and other city planners have no doubt seen the light, or at least the data.
Here’s an excerpt from NextCity that pulled figures from the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ recent report. 

“Public transit ridership increased by 34 percent between 1995 and 2011, according to the American Public Transit Association, and the ASCE report states that access to transit across the country has grown by nearly 10 percent.

That’s the big upside. But here’s the other part.

“Although transit investment has also increased, “deficient and deteriorating” regional transit systems cost the national economy $90 billion in 2010.”

Until those crumbling pieces can be fixed, cities will need more innovation from the RideScouts of the world. A whole ecosystem needs to be nurtured around infrastructure. Part of it’s behavior, but as we’ve seen with other trends, unlocking data with the right technology can open up all sorts of possibilities. As Austin City Councilman Chris Riley puts it, “the default answer for transportation in Austin doesn’t have to be a personal car.”

Last week’s SXSW Interactive was a good test for the young company. Kopser struck deals with  AirBnB and some of the car-sharing companies in town and was able to refine some ideas they’ve been building on.

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However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

As SXSW ended, there were other indications they might be onto something. In SX flair, urban design firm Gensler challenged people to come up with ideas to improve the city. It solicited feedback using a physical installation (photo above) with the hashtag #designatx. What were the top things mentioned? Mass transit, traffic, and congestion issues,  things the firm described as “practical and things that could be implemented.”

“Austin has the perfect launch city mix: terrible traffic congestion and rapid population growth of technology savvy residents looking for alternatives to car ownership,” said Kopser.

Can’t argue with that.

First posted at AustinStartup.

Recapping CleanTX Foundation’s Solar and EV Event

You might call it big data meets the grid. Panelists from Austin Energy, Meridian Solar, ERCOT, and Pecan Street Inc., came together recently at the CleanTX Forum to pitch the value of cleaner and connected communities. With Austin’s Mueller community as the centerpiece, the discussions focused on the impact of electric vehicles and rooftop solar.
This time, however, the discussion was more than just visionary. This session had real data — from real people.

“Photovoltaic (PV) and electric vehicles (EVs) together drive significant swings in the grid, and we really don’t know what that behavior looks like, we don’t have a laboratory,” opened ATI Co-Director Mitch Jacobsen. “But we do, it’s Mueller.”

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The Mueller community has grown from a novelty to a key hub for companies to better understand just how the smartgrid might unfold. Everything from dishwashers and electric cars are being monitored to track usage, something that’s invaluable to researchers and other groups trying to glean intelligence from the data.

“At Pecan Street the approach is to get to the data first, then look at the solution,” explained Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s director. By having one of the world’s largest concentrations of electric vehicles and more than 400 smart homes, the clean energy non-profit’s perspective is almost unique.

That’s helped Pecan Street bulk up quickly. Just last week, GM announced it would supply its OnStar technology and early access to 100 Chevy Volts in order to better understand the impact of EVs on driving habits and the grid.

 

ATI Director Isaac Barchas gave a brief overview of the electric vehicle (EV) market before shifting to solar’s growth. He dismissed the idea that cities might need loads of new infrastructure as early adopters plug in their clean cars.

“The conversation isn’t all that relevant about rationalizing EVs when all you need is a power cord,” he said.

That might be oversimplifying things a bit, but change can happen fast when you have that type of scale. Not everyone has a gas pump, but power outlets are there. The biggest hurdle, as Barchas mentioned, is the price of pure electrics. With most fully equipped models coming in at close to $40,000, they’re tough to justify for most people. The interesting thing is they could be worth more, especially when you figure in the cost of the battery.

“We don’t know what the aftermarket is for EVs, you’re driving around in a Fort Knox,” he said. But like solar, those costs are coming down too. Advancements in the cooling process and the move to more lightweight materials are two areas where engineering is getting a lift.

More Connections, More Data

 

Chris Holcomb, Pecan Street’s data scientist, says the group is working with UT researchers to identify areas where efficiency can be improved to ease the strain on the grid. He presented a behind-the-scenes look at how his team is building out its own internet of things, albeit one with a human element.

Holcomb’s team wants to be able to tell Mueller residents when to use all those smart devices. And as you’d imagine, Austin Energy and ERCOT have a vested interest in pushing more of that kind of intelligence into as many homes as possible.
Turning on the dryer and plugging in your EV at peak times, especially in Summer, is something that not only strains power loads, but isn’t sustainable. That’s the sort of scenario that Pecan Street wants to pound into the psyche of smart grid doubters everywhere. But not in a rolling blackout kind of way, something more grounded in the day-to-day.

 

“Our goal is to figure out what are the things people want to get done, basically, what can we learn from electricity data,” said McCracken.

One of the things they’re learning about is the domino effect of EV ownership in neighborhoods. Holcomb showed how transmission nodes become clustered around the density of a neighborhood, especially as a new EV plugs into the grid. They’re not yet to the point of predicting EV sales in certain zip codes, but not surprisingly, the data shows upticks in adoption when your neighbor plugs in her new Volt.

ERCOT’s Michael Leggat, senior human factors engineer, is also digging into the data. He mentioned an upcoming pilot project with a 3rd-party aggregator that will measure everything from driver behaviors to real-time grid conditions. With things like scheduling algorithms and GPS technology, he described the level of data integration we’re moving towards, as he held up a shiny Nexus 7.

“With Google Maps hooked into your EV app, you could have the capability to be intelligently routed to your next destination, all based on the capacity of your car’s battery,” said Leggat.

As impressive as that sounds, there’s plenty of work to be done commercializing key parts of the smart grid. Austin will load up on that as soon as this Fall, when the Pike Powers Lab opens in Mueller. By giving UT students and local research teams access to its data and infrastructure, the center aims to accelerate commercialization, research and education.

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Austin’s Clean Energy Venture Summit Is Next Week. Here’s A Few Reasons To Get Excited.

When a reminder about the upcoming Clean Energy Summit hit my inbox, I jumped at the chance to make the case for why Austin should be excited about this event. And while I’d be the first to advocate the benefits of a clean energy community, this isn’t a rah-rah session. Let’s look at what’s happening in clean energy to see why this year’s gathering should accelerate Austin’s clean energy future.

The Economic Climate

Clearly this isn’t the best of times for the economy. Unemployment is unfortunately unwavering, wages are stagnant, and now there’s even a potential poster child for clean energy failure with Solyndra’s collapse.

Even so, Cascadia Capital showed cleantech investments totaled $1.42 billion over 113 deals during Q2 2011. While that’s down 10 percent from Q2 2010, one thing to note was the shift to the “capital-efficient energy sector,” displacing investments in biomaterials and biofuels.

Big Fish Getting Involved A Good Sign.

A good barometer for clean energy is to also look at what established companies are doing to get a seat at the negotiating table. Fortune 500 companies are often a cleantech company’s first customer. And if they’re not a paying client, they often provide needed infrastructure or partnerships in key markets.

As an example, GE is aggressively investing in energy startups, telling the Wall Street Journal its deal flow for 2011 is already at 20, easily eclipsing its 2007 figure of 11.

That’s also consistent with data provided by UMASS economics Professor Nancy Folbre, who points out private venture capital has quietly moved towards the clean sector, rising to 16 percent in 2010 from 2 percent in 1995.

The other footnote to GE’s activity, and one startups should pay attention to, is its approach to cultivating its clean energy portfolio. Besides obvious industry partnerships, it created the Ecomagination program, aimed at spurring ideas to help the environment. And while there’s a PR veneer to it, GE is no doubt getting a leg up on what’s happening in the trenches, an innovation-driven sneak-peek if you will.

 

Where Are The Opportunities? How Is Austin Positioned?

Austin’s tech lineage is strong, particularly in software and semiconductors. A good start would be bridging that expertise. If we look at comparisons to the rise of information technology in the United States, the picture is clearer.

BrookingsMark Muro at Brookings Institution sized up how things might play out for clean technologies, making just such comparisons.

“The aggregate green economy, which includes jobs in the public sector and waste management, is just under half the size of the IT producing industry, but measured by jobs, “cleantech” is similar in size today as the computer manufacturing industry (162,000) and roughly half the size of the semiconductor industry (370,000).”

Those numbers are compelling for a few reasons. One, it shows cleantech isn’t as far behind as some pundits would have us believe. Not to mention the computer industry isn’t exactly tearing it up these days. Can you say Tablets? Heck, the most exciting innovation I’ve seen lately is proof that our computers are doubling their energy efficiency every 18 months. I’d also bet those semiconductor numbers decrease as processors increasingly move to smaller, more mobile devices. Unfortunately for some that might correlate to less manufacturing and fewer jobs.

Mr.Muro capped of his post with another important observation.

“..many solar producers are classified in the IT-sector as semi-conductor manufactures; smart-grid technologies are also heavily IT-based. It’s therefore not unimaginable that, with a few strong years of growth and innovation, cleantech could be large enough to fuel considerable increases in aggregate economic growth.”

One of the takeaways here is the breadth and potential depth of clean ecosystem and markets. Famously, many Silicon Valley companies have ‘pivoted’ to capitalize on other markets. The point is, Austin’s clean energy companies have plenty of ways to innovate in a sector that’s tied to so many converging forces. Today’s motherboard producer might be tomorrow’s solar fabricator.

Cities, Infrastructure Provide Opportunities

Getting more hyperlocal, there’s other reasons to pay attention to clean economy activity, not the least of which is better paying jobs. Here’s a few charts I pulled from the Brookings’ clean economy report. The first one is self-explanatory. There’s growth in our own backyard.

clean_economy_job_growth_Austin

In the second image, you’ll notice that Austin ranks 36th when you compare the largest 100 metropolitan areas. But look at the growth. The growth metric moved Austin up a number of notches and also shows clean jobs grew more than 5% each year. Not too shabby.

And before you scoff at the annual wages, we’re looking at you Mrs. software engineer, it’s important to keep it in perspective. Wages are higher compared to all other Austin jobs Brookings analyzed.

Austins_Clean_Economy

One other notable piece in the Brookings report was the huge emphasis on energy efficiency. It was the largest category analyzed by Brookings, capturing 13 out of the 39 distinct segments. That’s called bulletin board material if you’re keeping score. (Sorry for the sports cliche, but it is football season)

It shouldn’t be that surprising. Old buildings, old schools, all of them could use some sort of energy upgrade. Couple that with new commercial and residential activity and it’s no wonder ABI Research projects cities will spend $39.5 billion by 2016 to become smarter. The other data point I like to point out is research from the University of Massachusetts that estimated roughly 15 jobs are created for every $1 million invested in energy efficiency.

City Mayors Get Behind Clean Energy And Efficiency

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Another positive sign for CEVS is having the eyes and ears of local government. That was echoed in the form a recent letter to Washington from U.S. Mayors, entitled a “Common-Sense Jobs Agenda.” Local officials analyzed parts of Obama’s Jobs Act, emphasizing how the clean economy can spur job growth and stoke the economic fires.

The group (Mayors) has been vocal recently, penning an earlier report (June 2011) from its national conference, in which 86 percent of the 396 cities surveyed saw building retrofits and clean energy conversion as economic priorities.

So whether you’re a startup, an investor or you just want to see Austin continue to evolve, there’s plenty of reasons to get behind clean energy. Get out and support these companies, your grandkids will thank you.

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