Anne Field | Forbes.com | April 26, 2018
When you think of Central Florida, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t usually public transportation. David Thomas Moran and Nathan Selikoff want to change that. Through their Orlando-based startup Omnimodal, they aim to make public transit easier, more reliable and less of a hassle for people in even the most car-focused places with a system providing real-time data about local transportation systems to existing apps.
“Real-time information is crucial for growing ridership and keeping public transportation relevant,” says Selikoff.
The founders also just were awarded a $25,000 investment from Rally: The Social Enterprise Accelerator; Omnimodal is a recent graduate of the accelerator’s inaugural cohort.
“Transportation, the ability to get from place to place, is always one of the key problems contributing to poverty and unemployment,” says Mark Brewer, president and CEO of Central Florida Foundation, one of Rally’s backers. “This is a way to tackle that problem.”
The company started about two years ago, when, says Selikoff, who is an artist and expert in software and data visualization, “I was looking for an opportunity to make a difference here in Central Florida with public transit.” With that in mind, he reached out to Moran, also an artist, who had a background in urban planning and public transportation, to talk about the following: What was the most important thing about riding the bus that needed to be changed? The discussion led to the topic of real-time tracking of buses and trains in smaller cities with limited public transportation systems and overall resources. “We realized we could build a company around this,” says Selikoff.
As they started to investigate the problem further, they became more convinced they could make a significant impact on the experience of bus and train commuting if passengers could get reliable information in the moment about just where, say, the bus was and how long it would take to arrive. Plus, they learned that there were thousands of people in the area riding public transportation every day, including both residents and vacationers.
But neither of them knew much of anything about business. “As an artist, the idea of a profit-oriented venture making a positive social impact was quite foreign to me,” says Moran. “I felt in the cultural climate in the U.S. the most sustainable way to create and maintain this type of change is through a business,” says Selikoff.
Then they heard about Downtown CREDO Rally Makers Social Enterprise Accelerator, Rally’s predecessor. They signed on and, about a year later, were accepted into the new Rally. That gave them access to mentors and other important lessons in social entrepreneurship, plus the opportunity to do more market research.
“Their company emerged out of a deep passion about a real problem and leveraging that passion into workable solutions able to incrementally address the issue,” says Ben Hoyer, founder and director of social enterprise Downtown CREDO and a backer of Rally.
What they learned was that, while there were apps available for navigating public transit systems, smaller municipalities lacked the data to make the technology really useful. “A lot of cities didn’t have in-house technical expertise or funding to implement the kind of real-time information able to connect with all these apps that people were accustomed to using,” says Selikoff. So, they decided to create a streamlined system for connecting transit agency data with existing apps, one that could prevent people from missing a bus or train, especially in places with infrequent service. “The stakes are a lot higher if you don’t make your bus and another one isn’t coming for an hour,” says Moran.
Plus, they added another service–conducting an analysis of performance measurements for transit agencies and municipalities, their paying customers, to help them improve operational efficiencies. Also, they could help agencies measure the impact of better service on everything from carbon emissions to access to affordable housing.
How does it work? A small hardware device that can fit in the palm of your hand is attached to every vehicle and transmits data to a software system. (Customers don’t have to use that hardware). That system brings all the relevant intelligence together and creates an open data feed that flows into apps like Google Maps.
Riders, of course, can find out where their bus is. But they also can see such information as what routes connect to a commuter rail line taking them to historic downtown areas.
The other seven participants in the accelerator included The Mustard Seed of Central Florida, which aims to create jobs by recycling mattresses; Outcome Funding, focused on automating development coaching; Florida Abolitionist, with a mission to equip companies to stop human trafficking; HEBNI (Health Empowerment through Behavioral and Nutritional Initiatives), aimed at educating people to eat well; Snapgood, focused on removing barriers in volunteering; Ecospears, which is all about decontaminating soil and waterways; and Fleet Farming, launched to disrupt the food supply with local micro-farm plots.
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