Middlebury grad’s business is up and rolling
MIDDLEBURY — Matt George had mapped out a tentative plan for his life that included earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, then proceeding to medical school en route to becoming a physician.
But the 25-year-old’s career plans took an unanticipated detour during his four years at Middlebury College. Instead of preparing for a life of patients, stethoscopes and scalpels, George is now cruising at the helm of one of the nation’s hottest transportation services, a company called Bridj.
Billed as “the world’s first smart mass transit system,” Bridj is powered by data and mobile technology to optimize pick-ups, drop-offs, and routing based on demand. It is moving “hundreds of thousands of people each year,” according to George.
And if he has his way, Bridj and its fleet of shuttle buses will carry his ambitions full circle back to the Green Mountain State and Middlebury.
“It would give me an excuse to get back to Vermont more often,” George said during a recent phone conversation with the Independent.
George, a native of Haddonfield, N.J., graduated from Middlebury in February 2013, a scholastic career that included a semester as an intern in the White House.
“It was a tremendous honor,” he said of his brief White House stint, during which he assisted the Obama administration in dealing with health-care related correspondence.
George built his metaphorical bridge to Bridj as a student at Middlebury College through his predecessor company, which remains very active: BreakShuttle, which coordinates transportation services for college students during school breaks. The service uses an online ticketing platform and regional charter partners to match bus capacity with student demand, according to the breakshuttle.com website. Students and parents purchase tickets through the BreakShuttle website using a credit or debit card. BreakShuttle then sends an e-ticket to the purchaser’s inbox to use on the day of travel.
“It was sort of a way for me to make money,” George said of his work on BreakShuttle during three of his four Middlebury College years. He nurtured his fledgling business from his dorm room and at the college library during whatever spare time he had.
“Middlebury was incredibly generous in terms of the scholarships they were able to offer me, but there was still a sizable chunk (of tuition costs) every year I had to pay, usually resulting in me running to the registrar’s office the day that they were going to lock me out,” he added with a hearty laugh.
So George began chartering large buses for students looking for transportation to and from their homes during breaks like Thanksgiving and Christmas. He started with the University of Vermont, coordinating rides for students needing to get to metropolitan areas such as Boston and New York.
George put software in place that allowed students to purchase their tickets online. He would then work with reputable transportation companies to provide luxury charter buses that would pull up to UVM and take students to their home cities.
“This was a new experience, and a much-needed way for students to get home and see their families,” recalled George.
BreakShuttle is now the “largest provider of collegiate academic break transit services in the U.S.,” according to its website. It is serving students at dozens of colleges and universities nationwide.
George was proud of BreakShuttle’s success, but found himself confronting a big question — would he continue his studies to become a physician, or further his career in the transportation industry?
He chose the latter path. George could have focused exclusively on BreakShuttle, but decided to broaden the scope of his efforts. Specifically, he wanted to see if the BreakShuttle concept could become successful in urban settings.
BEYOND JUST STUDENTS
George had the idea of reforming the manner in which cities provide transportation and imagined a fleet of shuttles providing intra-city rides in a timely, cost-effective manner to people who felt inadequately served by subways and public transit buses.
He realized he would need some financial backing to get his idea off the ground. Fortunately, it did not take him long to find a solid lending partner, conveniently located in the Green Mountain State.
“I googled ‘venture capital Vermont,’ and the first thing that came up was FreshTracks Capital,’” he recalled.
Based in Shelburne, FreshTracks Capital L.P. manages $25 million in venture capital that is invested with a core focus on Vermont, according to its website. Cairn Cross and Charlie Kireker, a Weybridge resident, founded FreshTracks in 2000. Partners Tim Davis and Lee Bouyea joined the venture in 2005.
“I called (FreshTracks) and said something to the effect of, ‘I have a company that I have accidentally created that I think could be quite huge and quite significant, I hear venture capitalists help companies grow. Do you want to meet up?’” George said.
While he can chuckle about it now, George said his first meeting with FreshTracks did not go as swimmingly as he had hoped. His presentation was far from polished.
“They joke about it now, but it was probably the most unprepared pitch they had ever seen,” George said.
But FreshTracks officials saw great potential in George and his business concept, according to Kireker. Though only in his early 20s, George already had a proven entrepreneurial track record with BreakShuttle, which he had launched on a shoestring budget, Kireker and his colleagues noted.
“He ran (BreakShuttle) with an astute eye on the bottom line,” Kireker said. “He also seemed very technologically savvy and capable, and understood the digital dimensions of what he wanted to do, which was critical.”
And there were also the intangibles.
“He was mature beyond his years,” Kireker said, adding that venture capital funding decisions are usually based on three criteria.
“You’re betting first and foremost on the person, then the idea, and third, the business plan, which is going to change,” Kireker said.
FreshTracks officials agreed in the spring of 2013 to release some funding for Bridj that fall. But George needed some help before then. So FreshTracks officials reached out to some “angel investors” to come up with a combined total of around $50,000 for George to work on Bridj that summer. The company also agreed to provide George an office in which to work.
One of the biggest early investors, George said, was Addison County resident Rick Fritz, who is also a Middlebury College trustee. It was during his Middlebury graduation ceremony that George got a hint that Fritz was prepared to participate in financing. George received his diploma, and saw a little smile on Fritz’s face as he shook his hand.
“Maybe I read a little more into it than I should have,” George said of the smile, “but that’s when I knew he was going to do it. (Fritz) was the keystone to making this all work,” George said.
GUARANTEED SEAT, EXPRESS SERVICE
And things are working out well for Bridj, now available in Boston and Washington, D.C. The company is seeing more than twice the demand for services than it is currently able to supply, and this is occurring without spending significantly on marketing, George said.
People sign up for the service, and Bridj’s research team identifies groups of potential riders seeking travel between the same two locations at around the same time. In essence, the company creates routes within its service areas based on where the demand is the highest.
All rides are shared; each Bridj shuttle has Wi-Fi and seats up to 14 passengers. Fares cost “only slightly more” than is charged for the two cities’ public transportation systems, but significantly less than a taxi fare, according to George.
“On Bridj you’re always guaranteed a seat and an express trip between neighborhoods,” reads a recent Bridj press release.
George raised $8 million for Bridj during its first two years, and believes the company — with its growing track record — will raise more than twice that sum in 2016. Bridj will soon begin offering service in Kansas City, Mo. There, it will mesh “seamlessly” with the public transit system, according to George.
“Not only are we providing a great service to the customer, we are also saving the taxpayer — hopefully, in the long-term — a lot of money in Kansas City by offering a new, much more efficient way of providing transportation,” George said.
Ultimately, George sees Bridj going into many states, including Vermont. Bridj is considering whether routes along the Barre-Montpelier-Burlington corridor would make financial sense to his company, George said.
In the meantime, George will continue to expand Bridj and perhaps bring it to the state where he kicked it into gear.
“We certainly think the sky is the limit,” George said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].