Detroit-based firm brings high tech to transportation
Pay by smartphone for parking, track bus with GPS
A Detroit-based strategic investment firm co-founded by Bill Ford Jr. is bringing pay-by-phone parking to Michigan and the country.
And it's helping school districts — and eventually parents — keep better eyes on school buses.
Fontinalis Partners LLC invests in young transportation-focused technology companies such as Atlanta-based Parkmobile USA Inc., a company giving drivers alternate payment options at parking meters, and Everyday Solutions, Inc., a Massachusetts firm that equips school buses with GPS (satellite) tracking.
Out of quarters or in a rush to beat the meter maid? Parkmobile's service allows drivers to "feed a meter" by phone, through a smartphone application and the Internet.
"It gives another option for people not carrying change," said Mary Laundroche, a spokeswoman for the city of Dearborn, which debuted Parkmobile's service in its 272-space Lot H in mid-December and is considering expanding to all of west Dearborn. "You can sign up to get alerts. If you're having a good time with friends in a restaurant or bar … (you can) get a message on your cell phone, an alert saying you have 15 minutes left."
Fontinalis' investment in Everyday Solutions will help the company accelerate the service that lets parents know the whereabouts of their son's or daughter's school bus through a text alert or email, said Bill Westerman, vice president of marketing for Everyday Solutions.
Ford, known as a "green" auto executive, described Fontinalis' plans to aid intelligent technology companies during a recent speech to University of Michigan Ross School of Business students, telling them that technology will help solve environmental and transportation problems such as gridlock.
"I believe that there's so much going on here, and so much cool stuff about to happen," said Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. "And some of it is beneath the radar and too small for big companies like Ford to participate in, that I really wanted to help lead and define this space, and I wanted to do it in Detroit."
Ford's vision includes helping companies trying to solve problems caused by mobility, said former Ford Motor executive Mark Schulz, who with Bill Ford and businessman Ralph Booth founded Fontinalis in late 2009. "This is people mobility and other approaches to addressing congestion, pollution and traffic flow," he said.
First investments in 2010
In early 2010, Fontinalis made its first investment in Parkmobile USA and its parent company, Parkmobile International, which launched in 1999 with pay-by-cell-phone parking in the Netherlands. The company opened a U.S. office in early 2008, and its service debuted nationally in 2009 in Grand Rapids and is available in about 30 cities, including Dearborn and Petoskey, said Albert Bogaard, Parkmobile USA's CEO. There are also plans to roll out the service in Detroit, he added.
Parkmobile also is considering using its technology to guide drivers to parking spaces and connecting with parking garages to allow a driver through a vehicle's navigation system to see how many spaces are available, Bogaard said.
"We see a lot of other add on opportunity once it's established," Schulz said.
Just as Fontinalis sees growth potential in Parkmobile, it also sees additional applications coming from Everyday Solutions. Fontinalis made an investment in the company in June.
Founded in 2000, Everyday Solutions has more than 25,000 vehicles in North America using its GPS tracking solutions applications, including school buses in more than 100 districts, such as Ionia and Dearborn public schools. Everyday Solutions helps districts annually save between 10 percent and 15 percent on transportation costs, Westerman said.
The company's software allows districts to watch buses in real time and can help districts reduce bus idling time, he said.
"Buses, they're big and they can assume a lot of fuel," Westerman said. "Every mile that's driven that doesn't need to be is basically wasting money for the district."
Fontinalis, which declined to provide company investment amounts, continues to seek investments domestically and abroad, founding principal Chris Thomas said. "We haven't made an investment in a Michigan firm yet, but obviously we're looking at doing that," he said.
Unlike some venture capital firms, Fontinalis' senior leadership is directly involved in the companies it invests in, sitting on boards to "work side-by-side with the companies to help them grow their companies," Thomas said.
Schulz expects more investment to come this year. "We're just getting started," he said.