Princeton Undergrad Brings Scavenger-Hunt Startup to Boston
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you could build any type of custom, interactive mobile game or tour from a simple, easy-to-use online interface, and deploy it with the click of a button across any carrier or phone?” He connected with two professors who had already been working on a routing algorithm (they called it “SmartRoute”), started writing code, and entered the idea in TigerLaunch, Princeton’s annual business plan competition. The plan captured the $5,000 first prize.
Around the same time, Priebatsch applied to be part of DreamIt’s inaugural class. The incubator is the brainchild of David Bookspan, Michael Levinson, and Steve Welch, three veteran Philadelphia-area entrepreneurs who wanted to help champion the local high-tech economy and provide a platform for young innovators coming out of the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Princeton, and other nearby schools. Like similar incubators, including Y Combinator and Boulder, CO-based TechStars, DreamIt selects teams representing roughly a dozen early-stage startups for an intense, several-month-long period of hacking, mentorship, lectures, and cross-pollination. In return for a small percentage of each company’s founding equity, DreamIt provides the teams with living expenses, work space, and—perhaps most important—the opportunity to work with personal mentors and form long-term partnerships with “strategists” experienced in the startup world.
“We look for a combination of four things,” Levinson says. “A good idea, something that has the capacity to scale up, a good team with at least two people where there is a reason why these are the people who can be successful with it, and something where they can achieve a milestone by the end of the four-month program.” SCVNGR, he says, qualified on three out of four counts: the idea was unique and scalable, and Priebatsch had a working prototype even before he applied. But he needed a larger team to pull it off—so DreamIt paired him with a strategist named Michael Hagan, a veteran of two previous venture-funded startups and a business development specialist who is now SCVNGR’s COO.
Priebatsch “was without a doubt one of the brightest, highest-energy people in the program,” says Levinson. “I think once we helped him fill out his team a little bit, it really became a powerful situation.” For his part, Priebatsch says DreamIt “offered a lot more support” than Y Combinator and the other incubators he’d considered, including not just a larger stipend, but more mentorship and guidance, more legal and accounting support, and a “fantastic” level of sharing and camaraderie between teams.
DreamIt’s first class of 11 startups graduated in late August, and SCVNGR moved straight to its new headquarters in Boston. (DreamIt doesn’t require its teams to stay in the Philadelphia area, though most do, according to Levinson.) But in just a few weeks, the team will head back to Philly for the diamond hunt, its most complex and highly publicized event to date—sponsor Robbins Diamond is giving away chances to compete in radio call-in contests and auctioning off the remaining slots.
The engineer in Priebatsch can’t help getting excited when he describes how the event will run. “The specifics of the math is where it gets really cool,” he says. “I can’t go into huge detail, because we’re in the process of getting provisional utility patents on the core data-handling methods. But we send all the different teams on different paths that are generated dynamically based on a couple of variables. Location is one—you don’t want to be sending people all the way from one side of the city to the other and then back again. The most interesting variable is importance—how important is this location to the overall game.”
From a Web-based administrative interface, game organizers can monitor the players’ progress on a map and modify the experience on the fly by tweaking certain variables, including each location’s importance. “For example, in a museum, the game administrators could decide that this part of the exhibition is totally empty and they can dial up the importance and the game flow dynamics will alter so that that location receives more visits,” Priebatsch says.
Coordinating mobile games is just one of many potential uses for the SmartRoute algorithms, according to Priebatsch, and over time SCVNGR will build more applications. “But right now we’re pretty heavily focused on this gaming market because we think there’s a lot of potential there, and the market seems to want something that will make a location-based game easy and fun,” he says.
The company has already attracted bridge funding from a Boston investor—Priebatsch couldn’t say how much or from whom—and is talking to angel and venture investing groups. “The goal is to hit the stage…where we’re no longer in absolute mad-dash startup mode and I can head back to Princeton,” says Priebatsch, who admits that he’s under “a little bit of parental pressure” to re-matriculate. Maybe he can come up with an algorithm for finishing his degree as quickly as possible.
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