Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Robin Chase: Transportation 2.0

Source: Business Innovation Factory

Like many good ideas, Robin Chase's was born of necessity. A mother of three with just one car in the family, Chase had returned from a reunion at MIT's Sloan School of Management—where classmates were talking about their dot-com start-ups—when she realized she could apply a similar approach to her transportation difficulties.

The result was Zipcar, a car-sharing service that allows members to rent cars online for short periods of time. It's an ideal solution for city-dwellers who don't own a car but don't want to pay for an entire day to do an errand that might take just half an hour.

"This is what the Internet and data transmission was made for, sharing a scarce resource among many people," Chase says. "I joked that it was like the cartoon light bulb going off over my head, but it really was. Everyone said, 'Duh! How obvious', but I said 'Well, you didn't do it.'"

Founded in June 2000, Zipcar has been doubling in size year by year, and now has more than 100,000 members in 10 cities across the country.

After stepping down as Zipcar's CEO in 2003, Chase founded Meadow Networks, a firm that focuses on applying wireless technology to the transportation sector.

But the ride-sharing idea was still percolating. With evidence of global warming mounting by the day, Chase started thinking of how she could merge her expertise in car-sharing with the need to reduce carbon emissions and the development of social-networking sites on the Web.

She put it all together in GoLoco, a ride-share start-up that debuted earlier this year. Members fill out profiles that now seem very familiar. In the manner of sites like Facebook or Friendster, people list interests, languages, musical preferences and a network of friends or contacts.

After a trip, members are asked whether they would personally ride with their fellow passengers again, building a reliable first-hand database of feedback.

GoLoco not only helps members find a driver or more passengers but automatically divvies up the costs (and carbon-dioxide emissions) between the riders. Money is transferred via online accounts, to avoid awkwardness in the car.

The service, which launched in Boston on Earth Day, has been described as "part high-tech college ride board and part social calendar, with a dash of environmental conscience."

Chase grew up in the Middle East and Africa as the daughter of an American diplomat. She says it's not surprising that such an innovation should come from someone whose professional background was in public health. "I started thinking, why don't people share rides? They don't like to ride with strangers, it's difficult to find a ride, and there's no reward," she says. "Social-networking ideas that offer context and degrees of connection mean you don't need to travel with strangers. Clever algorithms make searching, posting and finding rides easy. Sharing real dollars for real expenses is an incentive."

"When I think about innovation, it comes from stuffing your head as full as you can with things not in the same vertical silo of ideas, the same discipline. The newest and most exciting ideas come at the intersection of disciplines, from connections that people haven't made before," she says.

Her experience has taught her that people already in a field will usually make just small, incremental changes in the way things are done, while those new to the field will be the ones who make the big conceptual leaps.

"If you want to think outside the box," Chase says, "you've got to be outside the box."

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