Catapulter wants you to travel smarter

Point A to Point B
By MARION DAVIS  |  February 23, 2011

TJI_jen_main
ON THE MOVE Jen Cheng.

You’re headed to New York and you need to keep the trip as cheap as possible, but also want WiFi, so you can work. Or perhaps you’re due in Boston’s Back Bay area, ASAP, and you need the ride to be quick and direct, even if it costs a little extra.

Right now, if you want to know your options, you’ll have to look at multiple websites — and if you don’t know what to look for, you’ll only get so far.

Adam Waaramaa and Jen Cheng want to change that.

They’re building a new Web service, Catapulter, that brings together all ground transportation options — Amtrak, commuter rail, bus lines, local buses and trains, even taxis and car services — in a single, easy-to-use interface like Expedia or Kayak.

Cheng came up with the idea last spring, as they were wrapping up their first year as Wharton MBA students in Philadelphia. They’d been working with another startup and decided to try their own. Cheng noted how hard it is to figure out buses, trains and such.

“When Jen came up the idea, I said, ‘Yes, this bugs me so much,’ ” Waaramaa recalls. “I spend so much time every time I need to plan a trip.”

They didn’t necessarily know how to solve the problem. But armed with a solid idea, they applied to Betaspring, a Providence startup incubator started by local entrepreneurs that offers “rent and Ramen noodles” money, a 12-week training program, and lots and lots of mentoring.

TJI_adam_main
ON THE MOVE Adam Waaramaa.

(Betaspring’s widely praised approach just won it a spot on the White House’s TechStars Network, a new alliance of startup accelerators.)

In Providence, the entrepreneurs recruited a chief technology officer: Mike Romito, who’d graduated from Brown University with Waaramaa in 2005 (Romito with a B.S. in electrical engineering, Waaramaa with a B.S., and then a 2006 M.S., in mechanical engineering).

Even as they built the site, they kept showing PowerPoint demos to potential users, trying to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and what was missing.

“It’s a process that never really ends — to figure out what people really want,” Waaramaa says, “but you just have to get something out there and show them.”

Since then, they’ve hired one more tech person and fleshed out the concept, with just bare-bones financing from friends and family. They’ve been in private beta-testing for awhile, and are almost ready to launch a larger-scale beta (to join, go to signup.catapulter.com).

The next step is to get capital, and over the weekend, they made big strides on that front, winning the Venture Capital Pitch Session at the Wharton Entrepreneurship Conference and demonstrating their site at the Start-Up Fair there.

Allan Tear, co-founder of Betaspring, says that’s an important way to “accelerate investment” in Catapulter.com.

“Increasingly, decisions on early-stage companies are happening in public forums,” he says, “in open environments where lots of investors can hear the idea and bounce it off each other, and where they can judge from the buzz of the larger group.”

Tear says he believes Catapulter.com can go far — it meets a real need, and he’s tried it himself.

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