Wanderu, With New iOS App, Pays Richard Branson a Visit

Xconomy Boston — 

You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the folks at online-travel startup Wanderu managed to avoid the Northeast’s most recent snowstorm. The company pegs itself as “Kayak for buses,” but its own travel last weekend involved flying.

To Richard Branson’s private island, to be exact.

Boston-based Wanderu is one of three companies that won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caribbean island to pitch Branson and other judges, including investor and kiteboarder Bill Tai, computer scientist Lars Rasmussen from Facebook (and Google Maps), and Veronica Serra of Brazil’s Pacific Investimentos.

It was all part of the Extreme Tech Challenge finals on Feb. 6. The other two finalists were Doctor On Demand and Breathometer. In addition to the trip, the companies received tech services from IBM, Rackspace, Tibco Spotfire, and others.

In her 10-minute pitch to the judges, Wanderu co-founder and CEO Polina Raygorodskaya actually held something back: her company is rolling out its first mobile app today, in the iOS store. Wanderu has had a mobile website for a long time, but this is its first native app.

The app helps people find, book, and compare prices for bus tickets. It includes some new features to streamline the booking process for travelers. About 50 percent of the company’s traffic is on smartphones and tablets, says Raygorodskaya (pictured to the right of Branson with finalists and judges).

But back to that island trip. It all came about after Wanderu made the cut down to 10 finalists who pitched at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. From there, the startup was selected as one of three winners to fly out to Branson’s Necker Island for a couple days of schmoozing, pitching, and collaborating with other entrepreneurs and investors.

Branson, the billionaire founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, is a great ally for a travel startup to have. Though he’s not an investor in Wanderu (at least not yet), he had some kind words for the team. During the Q&A session, Branson stood up and talked about “how we really have an opportunity to create the next great travel brand,” Raygorodskaya says.

There was some comic relief in the form of lemurs—which are fairly common on the island—interrupting Branson’s remarks with their calling and howling. (The 74-acre island is home to a number of exotic animal species, some of which were brought in by Branson himself.)

But Raygorodskaya took his comments to heart. “Richard Branson, to us, is the king of transportation,” she says. “Virgin has done amazing things in a space that’s really hard to get into. And it’s put up with a lot of crap from giants.” Wanderu isn’t a perfect comparison, she says, but “we work with companies that have been around for a long time, and we’ve had to break down barriers.”

The company raised a $5.6 million Series A round last fall led by Metamorphic Ventures. Its other investors include Alta Ventures, 500 Startups, Barbara Corcoran Venture Partners, Craig Lentzsch, and Brad Feld.

After an exhilarating event, the Wanderu team ended up stranded on the island for an extra day because of the Boston storm. Temperatures on Necker were in the 80s with clear skies, no rain.

“Not a bad place to be stuck,” Raygorodskaya says.