Connections, travel and family, with business promise

Posted: April 28, 2011

For entrepreneurs, the road from inspiration to creation can be long and rocky. But the local companies that shared glimpses of their innovations and business plans Tuesday at Switch Philly, a start-up showcase at the Wharton School, all hope they've traversed the toughest section.

One presenter was a Wharton sophomore, Joseph Cohen, founder of Coursekit, which aims to remake the way students and teachers interact online - a field he says has long been dominated by clunky software.

Cohen said the goal was "to keep what's magical about a good course and bring it to the Internet" with social-media tools, such as by giving students and teachers the ability to post ideas or links on a virtual classroom wall.

Mary L. Hagy, chief executive of cWyze, presented big dreams of another sort: a multilayered platform for online video ads that aims to make them more valuable to advertisers and website owners by making them interactive. Critique a joke on a Heineken ad - is it "not so funny" or "freakin' funny"? - and you can earn a $5 coupon.

And Laan Labs' cofounders, app-makers Christopher and Jason Laan, demonstrated just one of their creations: Tap DJ, a cool app that can turn your iPad or iPhone into the equivalent of a disc jockey's control station, allowing you to mix, scratch, and mash up sounds from your iPod music library.

It's impossible to do justice to any one of these creations, or the innovators behind them, in a single column. The "Brothers Laan" started their "experimental development shop" all of two years ago, and have won plaudits for work that ranges from the plainly useful (Sonar Ruler measures the distance from your phone to a wall) to the plainly just-for-fun (Fireplace App, which can turn your Mac screen "into a realistic fireplace" - well, if you have a warm imagination).

Five start-ups presented at Switch Philly. Here's a bit more detail on two that especially caught my eye:

Catapulter. The creation of two Wharton students who expect to earn their MBAs next month, Catapulter aims to be "like kayak for ground transportation," according to CEO Adam Waaramaa, who cofounded it with Jen Cheng, chief financial officer and director of marketing.

The idea came from Cheng, who traces it to two insights. One was about her own trouble finding efficient ways around when she moved here for grad school without her faithful Mini Cooper. The other was about the challenges her brother faced when stranded at a New York airport a few hours before he was due to leave for London - from Washington.

Faced with her help, that is. Cheng spent a frenzied hour on her laptop figuring out how her brother could make the trip without blowing his grad student's budget.

Amtrak was too expensive, and bus connections were complicated. But Cheng managed to route him via Megabus, and tell him how to make all the necessary connections - the information was all available online, but finding it was a problem.

"I realized, the Internet is so powerful, and we always go online to get answers," Cheng recalled. "I thought: 'Why isn't there a site where you can say, 'I'm here, please get me there.' "

That's what Catapulter does - solving what Cheng calls "a giant math problem for getting people from place to place."

Now in public beta testing at www.catapulter.com, the site guides users through a mix of local buses and trains, taxis, and walking directions for trips within a city, and mixes in trips via intercity carriers such as Amtrak, Greyhound, and Peter Pan. For now, it's limited to the Northeast, but the nation beckons.

Ohanarama. The Hawaiian word ohana means "family" in the broadest sense. To Jane Hoffer, the entrepreneur behind Ohanarama, it seemed a perfect image for her creation: a multi-user Internet gaming platform designed to connect far-flung families by allowing relatives to play together.

Hoffer, 45, is CEO of Wallingford-based BrainRewards, the second company she has founded. (She is also president of the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs, a group of 150 businesswomen.)

A beta version of Ohanarama, its first product, is up and running. Kids can use it at www.ohanarama.com, and by the end of next month, adults will be able to access the site directly, too. For now, older players have to log in via a Facebook app at www.facebook.com/ohanarama.

Hoffer said the site was inspired by two key statistics: that more than 50 percent of America's 70 million grandparents live at least 200 miles from their grandchildren, and that women over 55 were the fastest-growing group of Facebook members in 2009.

With Ohanarama, grandkids and grandparents can challenge each other to games, from familiar ones such as gin rummy and checkers to games invented for the site.

One of Hoffer's favorites: a quiz-show-like game called Relativity, in which one player answers a set of questions - such as, "What would you do if you were locked in zoo overnight?" - and other family members have to guess what the answers would be.

Hoffer doesn't mention whether she'd "Snuggle with the pandas," "Let the gorillas loose," "Raid the gift shop," or "Call 911." But she's betting that grandkids and grandparents will get a kick out of guessing one another's answers. And she's probably right.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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