Carma drives US$2.5m developer competition to address global commute problem

11 Jun 2014

Sean O'Sullivan, CEO, Carma

Tech investor Sean O’Sullivan’s Cork-based software company Carma, which is focused on reducing traffic on the streets by encouraging commuters to carpool, has launched a US$2.5m competition to attract and inspire software developers.

Carma, which was previously known as Avego and employs around 60 people in Cork, saw its technology experience an 8,000pc increase in usage during last year’s San Francisco BART strikes.

The company plans to open its API to developers and has launched a US$2.5m competition consisting of a US$1m prize for a developer who can develop an app using the API that nets 10,000 rides per day for a week.

A second strand of the competition will award US$1m to a Carma employee who creates a feature that results in 1,000 new daily trips in a single metro area.

The final component of the competition, worth US$500,000, is an accelerator award for an entrepreneur that involves mentorship and support at Carma’s headquarters.

The Carma app helps to sync drivers with people in their community who are willing to carpool to get to work.

The app has tens of thousands of users principally in four major commuter hubs: the San Francisco Bay Area; Austin, Texas; Bergen, Norway; and Cork, Ireland.

The sharing economy

O’Sullivan, Carma’s CEO and founder, explained it’s all part of fostering a sharing economy and influencing change in the world.

The driver receives a portion of the 85pc of the cost of the journey while Carma receives 15pc. The passenger pays 20 cents a mile, which is cheaper than public transport and up to nine times cheaper than the cost of a taxi.

The app could be a force for change, particularly in a digital economy where apps such as Hailo and Uber have already revolutionised hiring taxies.

“Taxis are an important part of getting around without driving cars but they are still not great for a city’s traffic flow. Apps like Hailo and Uber are certainly helping to improve the efficiency of drivers and fleets and that’s a good thing, but in terms of commuters going from home to work and sharing with people going the same way there is no app yet nearly as successful as Carma.”

As well as being CEO of Carma, O’Sullivan is managing director of SOSventures. In the course of his career, O’Sullivan has invested in more than 100 companies, six of which became public companies or divisions of public companies listed on the NASDAQ or NYSE. He is a co-founder and mentor at HAXLR8R, the hardware accelerator based in China.

His first company, MapInfo, grew to a US$200m public company, and popularised street mapping on computers. Among his successful investments to date are Netflix and Harmonix, creator of Guitar Hero.

O’Sullivan is also credited by MIT for co-coining the term ‘cloud computing’.

He said he was motivated to launch the US$2.5m competition to accelerate the adoption of the app but also to focus developers on real-world problems.

“There is a shortage of developers for sure, but even more so developers working on critical problems for humanity.

“Not to disparage people who create games, they are great, but we also need people focusing on apps that address critical problems for society.

“There is a lot of congestion on roads around the world and this is contributing to global warming and other environmental issues.

“While Google is focused on driverless cars, we are focused on riderless cars. It is so incredibly inefficient and damaging to the environment when you have large and small vehicles going around and only one person in them, which is what the bulk of commuters in our cities do.

“During rush hours it is remarkable that 80pc of cars in traffic have one driver in them. This is the problem that Carma is attacking for human kind in this day and age.”

The challenge of change

O’Sullivan, who was in Washington, D.C., this week to meet the US Deputy Secretary at the Department of Transport, said cities should also be looking at ways of encouraging carpooling.

In the case of Washington, D.C., the city has created special lanes for people who carpool called HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes.

“In general, Washington, D.C. has taken a very progressive stance and especially in creating more bicycle lanes that have taken over the city and it has been more progressive than many other cities in this regard. Good public policy does force behavioural change.

“In terms of Carma, we are also inspiring change and now we want to accelerate that change.”

Disclosure: SOSventures is an investor in Silicon Republic

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years