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GlobeSherpa, a Portland State student-led venture, moves forward in convenient transit application

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

Riding TriMet buses and trains in Portland may soon become a paperless, machine-less and generally more convenient experience ifGlobeSherpa has anything to say about it.

The 2-year-old company has created a mobile system that lets riders buy tickets on their phones. The completely paperless platform would also give TriMet an easier way to manage operations and even provide it with more in-depth data about customer habits and interests. 

The project has evolved to such a degree that GlobeSherpa and TriMet  are currently in negotiations to give the system a shot. Beta testing could launch this fall.

“We’re making a product that will touch people’s lives daily,” says Nat Parker, who co-founded GlobeSherpa with Michael Gray. “That’s something we’ve built. It’s not an abstraction.”

Parker says the mobile ticketing platform is simple, stress-free and shouldn’t affect fare prices.

After downloading the free app, riders can purchase tickets by credit or debit card each time they ride the bus or light-rail, or create a secure account that will streamline the payment process for regular users. Parker says the company also plans to integrate the system with PayPal.

When ready to board, users activate their ticket by pressing ‘Hop On,’  initiating a unique animation, day code, and time and date stamp that drivers and fare inspectors can easily verify.

What’s more, the system comes with helpful bells and whistles, such as trip planning, real-time arrival and departure information, alerts about service disruption, as well as transportation related events and promotions.

For riders, the system’s another step into the mobile technology universe that is changing how we live in virtually every way.

For GlobeSherpa, profits come from small commissions made from each ride.

For money-strapped TriMet, there’s the hope of more streamlined operations, says Tom Strader,  senior fare policy analyst for the transportation agency, as well as help with fare abusers and the reduction of ticket management costs.

“There’s convenience for customers here,” Strader says. “But for us, if we can get customer needs fulfilled without a physical outlet, that’s an efficiency.”

GlobeSherpa is the small newbie in a mobile ticketing space full of much bigger companies, particularly those in Europe, says Nitin Rai,  president and chief executive officer of First Insight, a Hillsboro company that makes business management software for opthamologists.

But GlobeSherpa may have an advantage over its competition because its system does not involve paper.

“That’s the transformation,” says Rai, who is also an investor in Globe Sherpa.

Parker, 33,  and Gray, 39,  met in 2009 while both were getting their MBA’s at Portland State University.  Parker is a former Peace Corps worker in Senegal, and one of his projects at PSU was an idea for a travel guide for smartphones. Gray saw it and loved it. Soon, the two bonded over experiences in past corporate jobs and the promise of starting a business together.

They realized there were opportunities in the app space for B-to-B businesses. That’s how Parker’s mobile travel guide became a mobile transit system company.

Eventually, they initiated conversations with TriMet regarding their idea. They also began making rounds at small business organizations and conferences, like Angel Oregon  and Portland Seed Fund,  with Parker serving as the public face and company pitch man and Gray acting as the behind-the-scenes figure.

So far, GlobeSherpa has tallied $500,000  in investment from various sources. The company now has eight employees — four full-time and four part-time — all of whom work side-by-side in a cramped, one-room office they lease from ISITE Design  in Northwest Portland.

Once the mobile system is perfected for TriMet, Parker says there are other possibilities to pursue.

Because it tracks how often riders use the bus or MAX line and where and when they use it, the mobile system is a lens into a rider’s habits, some of them consumer-based. That could mean partnerships with other agencies and businesses to create a kind of one-stop planning system that could allow riders to purchase tickets to music concerts and sports events while planning public transportation to get there.

These partnerships are possible, Parker says, because the technology behind the mobile transit system is transferable to other spaces. If things work with TriMet, for example, Parker says another step for his company would be to pursue a new space for his system, such as the parking world.

Still, everyone’s focus right now is making the system work for TriMet, Parker says.

“Our goal is to build a successful company. But first, we have to do this right for TriMet. That is what will set us up.”

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