A Car Company at the Web Innovators Group?

Last night’s 20th meeting of the Web Innovators Group at Cambridge’s Royal Sonesta Hotel was possibly the largest ever, spilling from the usual ballroom into the adjacent conference rooms and attracting a crowd so thick that it was difficult to see the demo tables. Perhaps the high attendance was to be expected, given the layoffs rolling through the local tech community and the fact that more entrepreneurs and software developers these days are looking for their next gigs. But what was unexpected was the spotlight role assumed by Local Motors, a Wareham, MA-based startup with dangerously disruptive ideas about automobile manufacturing.

John “Jay” Rogers—a Harvard MBA and former Marine who is the president, CEO, and co-founder of Local Motors—explained during one of the meeting’s three “main dish” presentations that the company intends to drastically reduce the time and expense that goes into developing new car models, by building a nationwide network of “micro-factories” where car buyers themselves would be involved in the design and construction of their vehicles. The Web will play a key role in the process, as the company hosts online competitions where amateur car designers from around the world can submit concept sketches and other community members can vote on their favorite designs. The company plans to purchase the licensing rights to the winning designs and make them into working prototype cars, Rogers said.

A concept car model from Local Motors One car that won a contest on the site, the Rally Fighter, will become Local Motors’ first production vehicle; the company recently brought the car’s designer, Sangho Kim, to its Wareham facility for a week of full-immersion development work. “Where GM would spent $100 million to get this far, we’ve spent $10,000 on a website, a prize, and a plane ticket,” Rogers said.

The company, which beat out its two competitors in the traditional audience-favorite text message voting at the Web Inno meeting, says it plans to build its cars around a standard chassis and sell them for about $50,000—not exactly an affordable price, but one that may attract a certain class of buyers who want to see their car being built. Don’t ask me right now how Local Motors plans to build low-production-quantity cars efficiently, certify their safety, or provide for serviceability—but I’ll get to the bottom of it in a future story.

The other two main-dish presenters were Cambridge, MA-based Web analytics startup Crimson Hexagon (which I profiled last month and therefore won’t describe here), and Stratham, NH-based Skyward Innovations, which rolled out a free travel assistance service earlier this year called TripChill. Built to work with mobile phones, the beta-stage service is designed to supply business travelers with the real-time information they need to manage their trips while they’re en route.

The way Alex Shore, Skyward’s co-founder and CEO, explained it during an entertaining on-stage sketch, the TripChill system is at its best when travelers are coping with unexpected changes, such as a flight cancellation that leaves them stranded overnight in an unfamiliar airport. Once users have submitted their flight itineraries and hotel reservations to TripChill, the system can monitor online sources for schedule changes and send text-message updates. Say a traveler gets stuck overnight at Chicago’s O’Hare International: TripChill reasons that the user probably needs a hotel room for the night, and automatically sends a list of hotels with available rooms that fit the user’s pre-specified preferences. It can even call a user with a wake-up message that includes information about weather and flight times, or remind them about where they parked their car when they return to their home airport.

While the system works on any mobile phone through text messages, Skyward is working on a $10 dedicated iPhone application that will be available through the iTunes App Store by the end of this month, Shore said. In addition to its free service, the company will offer a premium “concierge” subscription service for $10 per month.

Along with the main dish presenters, the meeting featured brief presentations and demo tables from six more interesting venture-backed and pre-venture-funded startups. They included:

* Pixability, a Cambridge, MA, startup that creates professionally edited home movies from camcorder footage that users share online.

* TipJoy, another Cambridge startup (and recent Y Combinator graduate) that has built an online micropayments system that lets users leave tips rewarding online content they like.

* HelpGuest, an online marketplace where self-appointed experts in various computer subjects can assist users over the Internet for a set per-minute rate.

* InfoMed, a Brookline, MA-based company that has built an online medical symptoms checker that leads users to personalized healthcare information.

* Photrade, a Cincinnati, OH-based online marketplace where photographers can sell their images for re-use elsewhere on the Internet; the system embeds ads along with the images, which allows bloggers and other online publishers to use them at no charge.

* Genotrope, a startup job search site created by Boston entrepreneur Tom Summit that makes it easier for job seekers to research prospective employers by showing how local companies are connected to each other via common founders, executives, or investors.

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

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