Nitrous sits down with Andreas ‘Zac’ Zachariah, co-founder of TravelAi and talk about the direction of travel(!) from carbon footprints to the company as it is today.
What does TravelAi do?
We create next-generation travel-usage data that lets transport organisations deliver efficiencies and service improvements that previously could not be identified without costly hardware and sensor investment.
How did you come up with the idea for the company?
It was a product of a previous incarnation – a company called CarbonDiem. There, we were interested in solving the problem of sustainability in transport, and figured that automation would be critical to beat user input fatigue.
So, piggybacking off the widespread use of smartphones, we studied a people’s movement using our software and smartphone sensors to produce a carbon profile.
The WeCycle project followed this and sought to crowdsource cyclists ‘desirelines’ when we learnt about the way counters at fixed locations and roadside surveys were going to inform major cycle spending. And this is when we looked closer at how the transport industry collects travel behaviour data and learnt about the costs, fragmentation and tiny sample data that inform service design and infrastructure spending. Which, given the amazing socioeconomic and environmental influence on everyday lives, compelled us into action.
Along the way we’d gathered data for enterprise clients. What we saw was that, compared to traditional transport sector tools, we had mountains of data and insight to offer.
Cue the launch of TravelAi.
Correct. In 2012 we [with co-founder Peter Lindgren] set up TravelAi. We’re now a nine-strong team and growing.
How does the team structure work?
We’re split between several places; namely Finland, Portugal and London. We need very specific levels of skill and talent in narrow fields and aren’t geographically constrained by where that talent needs to be.
Peter and I run the commercial side of operations, split project management duties. He leads on marketing, and I manage the tech side of things.
How has the business developed since you first set it up?
Since 2012, it’s been an up and down journey. The process of generating, collecting this kind of data – the fact it can be done is a new thing. So it’s been an educational process, to get prospective clients on board, and this has required a lot of perseverance. I think we’re in a good place now.
Now we’re developing relationships with cities and transport companies, finding actors in the sector who are cognitive of the power of tech and the virtuous cycle of data.
We’re now well past the proof of concept stage and have been able to launch publicly. We’ve had third parties use the product, so it’s in a strong place. Still, we’re always looking for ways to make the product better and find new features.
How did you get involved with Nitrous?
I heard about it after talking to someone at TfL late last year, and got an early indication that it was coming up.
How is the programme matching up with your expectations?
From what we knew about the programme before it started, versus now when we’re fully into it, it’s going pretty well.
It works for us – time poor startups – and the programme structure is set up to accommodate that. Having said that, you kind of wish that some of the sessions, like masterclasses, were longer!
What do you want to get from programme?
We want to be firmly on the radar as a viable and relevant solution provider for TfL, and any mobility and non-mobility companies that come across us via the programme.
We also want potential clients and partners to know us as people passionate about making transport better for all, not just for our tech. The TravelAi technology can span different workstreams and having those conversations with the right people is a critical part of the education, and sales process.
We’re very happy the programme is happening now. As an insider, it’s easy to not see what someone outside views as value. TravelAi is at a stage where focusing on the product/market fit is ideal.
What’s currently keeping you up at night?
We’re very busy at the moment… When these things come you just have to go with it.
Right now we’re running several projects, including a MaaS commercial project, and a three-partner project in Manchester looking at behaviour change.
And we’re also leading an exciting two-year project with Innovate UK, working with five cities, four other SMEs and three research centres. We’re trying to create a journey planner that collects traveller behaviour , so that there’s a better understanding of journeys and movements. It’s a five-city pilot, with a view to roll out nationally.
Where do you see TravelAi going in the future?
We’re not just about data creation. We’re also capable of producing analyses and useful insights and building them into tools. We’re just at the start of our own journey.
TravelAi is in the April 2017 cohort of the Nitrous programme.