Princeton Undergrad Brings Scavenger-Hunt Startup to Boston

At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 18, 500 couples will fan out across Philadelphia in search of a $25,000 diamond ring hidden by a local jeweler. Equipped only with cell phones, the couples will receive text-message instructions directing them to an array of local landmarks, where they’ll have to complete puzzles and other challenges to earn points and get directions to their next stops. The first team to earn 100 points will be sent a riddle whose solution is the key to the diamond’s location.

It’s called the “Robbins Diamonds Scavenger Scramble,” and it will be the biggest test yet for a new Boston company called SCVNGR. Led by 19-year-old Princeton undergraduate Seth Priebatsch, the company is one of the first startups to emerge from DreamIt Ventures, a Philadelphia-based incubator similar in conception to Paul Graham’s Y Combinator, the well-known “startup camp” based in Cambridge, MA, and Mountain View, CA. SCVNGR’s shtick is running text-message-based interactive games for corporations, associations, and non-profits, using proprietary algorithms designed by two Princeton professors to efficiently direct large numbers of game players (or museum visitors, or anyone moving in space) through a series of checkpoints.

You might not think it would be very difficult to set up a scavenger hunt using text messaging, which is, after all, a 20-year-old technology. But the hard part isn’t sending out the messages, says Priebatsch; it’s knowing where to send the players. If you’ve got 500 teams competing, after all, you don’t want them all rushing to the same spots in the same order. That’s where the routing algorithms come in.

“Once you finish a question and send in the right answer, the system dynamically picks your next location and clue based on how far away the other locations are, how many people are there already, and how important the clues are,” Priebatsch explains. “You can’t know where you’re going to go ahead of time. If you played the same game 100 times you’d never take the same path.”

SCVNGR has already hosted demo scavenger hunts for organizations like the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and for Dreamit Ventures itself—where Priebatsch was in residence from May to August—and it has other events coming up at Princeton, MIT, Tufts, two museums in Boston, and one museum in Philadelphia. (A major hunt in downtown Boston, planned to coincide with Boston Arts Festival in early September, was scrubbed due to bad weather.) In just its first few weeks out of Dreamit, the company booked $25,000 in revenue, Priebatsch says.

The Boston native would be starting his sophomore year in Princeton’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) department right about now, but he’s on a one-year leave from the university to get his company off the ground. ORFE is a section of Princeton’s engineering school where students are drilled in both the technological and management skills needed to become entrepreneurs. Which sounds like the perfect place for Priebatsch; even at 19, he’s already a serial entrepreneur, having started out with the obligatory lemonade stand (albeit on Boston’s posh Newbury Street), then followed up with PostCardTech, a Boston-based startup that produces CD-ROM-based “interactive postcards” for tourists.

SCVNGR is half events company, half platform provider: at the same time that it’s mounting scavenger hunts for individual clients, the five-person startup is polishing a free, Web-based interface that allows anyone—from a mom organizing a teen’s birthday party to a museum administrator planning an innovative way for guests to explore a new exhibition—to write a series of clues and assign them to a network of locations. The company may try to monetize free games by sending out location-based advertising messages along with clues.

It all adds up to a busy schedule: “I’ve been running at 600 miles an hour and having a great time doing it,” says Priebatsch. That was certainly the case when I visited SCVNGR’s offices at TechSpace, a renovated loft in Boston’s SoWa neighborhood that’s home to dozens of small startups. In the 30 minutes I was there, Priebatsch had to excuse himself three times to deal with urgent phone calls and text messages about a scavenger hunt that was getting underway that morning at Drexel University.

The concept for the hunts came together last winter. “I was messing around with some ideas, and I thought it would be cool to build an easy-to-use, high-tech, cell-phone-based scavenger hunt that could be played from any phone,” Priebatsch says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if 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.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Princeton Undergrad Brings Scavenger-Hunt Startup to Boston”

  1. well says:

    cutlass was doing that years ago. 2001 01 01 to be exact. and it’s been doing it on college campuses ever since. it works on any phone anywhere, anytime. so the dude Priebatsch is about 9 years late..