Made in Pittsburgh: 5 Great Ideas
Modern-day creation in Pittsburgh doesn’t just involve physical products; we also have a knack for hatching new ideas that can solve problems in innovative, unexpected ways. These locally based thinkers are applying big thoughts to bigger problems.
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The Idea: To use crowdsourced data to make the growing rideshare industry even more efficient.
Ryan Green is constantly on the move — so it seems natural that he would form a company, Gridwise, that helps people get from place to place.
Pennsylvania is the 12th state the Texas native has called home. But for the last three months, Green has been traveling out to Detroit weekly to work at Techstars Mobility, an accelerator program for transportation industry startups. Gridwise, a mobile app designed to help rideshare drivers increase their earnings, is one of 11 ventures picked by Techstars for a $120,000 investment and a 90-day mentorship program in the Motor City with Ford, Honda, Michelin and other automotive partners; the program will culminate in a pitch day in front of journalists, industry executives, angel investors and venture capitalists.
It has been a busy year for Gridwise. The year-old company recently expanded into Washington, D.C., and Baltimore — two major cities that comprise one gigantic metro area. Pittsburgh rideshare drivers have put the free app through its initial paces — using its features to forecast heavy passenger times at the airport, check if Pirates games are going to extra innings and monitor traffic snarls. Updating that to a sprawling metropolis served by three major airports, with considerably more spectator sports and concerts and four times the population, is a challenge several orders of magnitude higher.
Then again, Green — a former Naval officer — is used to pressure situations. The son of a Marine officer and track star, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and played cornerback for the Midshipmen. It’s a position where resilience and short-term memory is essential for survival. “The chaos that exists in startups on a daily basis is having all sorts of adversity come from different directions,” Green says. “I think having that experience and that mindset that I developed as a corner helps me take on those things and not have them affect me as much but lets me digest them — understand what the situation is, what the mistakes were if there were any and how to improve.”
Green majored in economics, minored in Chinese and started his first company, FX Connection, while he was still at the academy. The short-lived venture was a website that coached people on trading strategies for the foreign exchange market. Following graduation and a short stint at flight school in Pensacola, Fla. — where, during down times, he made extra money as an Uber driver — Green came to Pittsburgh to take a job on the foreign-exchange trading desk at PNC.
His experiences as a rideshare driver, and then in Pittsburgh as a frequent user, opened his eyes to obstacles, literal and figurative, that drivers encounter as they try to map out a daily strategy to maximize fares. In his spare time, Green started building a website to test the market for an app like Gridwise; when more than 500 drivers signed up, he decided it was time for his second attempt at entrepreneurship. With Brian Finamore, the former director of mobile and social projects at the pro sports app YinzCam, handling the programming end, they launched the company in 2016 and started building the app at AlphaLab, the East Liberty accelerator.
The team has added a third member and moved to Alloy 26, a co-working space at Nova Place on the North Side. As initially conceived, Gridwise was a mobile platform providing customers with market intelligence collected by the business, a model that makes sense to a market trader. But it has evolved into a peer-to-peer network, Green says, increasingly allowing the drivers themselves to crowdsource real-time information as they see it.
“One of the biggest things we’ve learned in doing this is there’s a great sense of camaraderie among the drivers,” he says. “They see it’s more beneficial to share that information and pay it forward, so that other drivers will share information with them that they would be missing out on.”
Gridwise is nondenominational — it works with all rideshare and taxi-hailing apps, from big ones such as Uber, Lyft and zTrip to smaller services Curb and Via. To stay current, Green still takes a shift as a driver about once a month. And he habitually quizzes cabbies and rideshare drivers to see if they use his app, and if so, what features they love, hate or covet. “At first they’re like, ‘Who’s this guy asking me all these questions about my driving?’”
Of course, a person zeroed in on ridesharing in Pittsburgh can’t fail to notice the growing fleet of driverless Ubers plying the streets. But while the end may be in sight for the job of chauffeur, industry experts still foresee at least another decade or two of human drivers navigating traffic, Green says.
That market represents an opportunity — and Green hopes he can convince his audience in Detroit to bank on it.