Startup tackles environmental planning nightmares
TORONTO (Reuters) - A nightmare environmental project turned into a call to action for Austin, Texas entrepreneur Kristen Carney.
A couple years ago, while working for a large engineering consulting firm, Carney was hired to complete what she thought was a straightforward analysis: directly connect two roads that were currently joined by an intermediary road. More than 100 hours later and thousands of dollars over budget, a frustrated Carney felt there had to be an easier solution.
Carney complained about her ordeal to friend and software whiz Anthony Morales, who offered to design a program that could drastically reduce the time it took her to gather and format her data. Morales's software worked so well, they founded Cubit Planning www.cubitplanning.com, a Web-based platform that provides cut-and-paste ready environmental data.
"A lot of people say, 'Hey, you've lived my nightmare,'" said Carney, who launched Cubit last year with just $2,000. She said their open-source technology operates in similar fashion to that used by stock websites. "They go out and they grab information from a bunch of different resources and they compile it nicely for you, so you can make a decision based on that data. That's what we do, but for environmental engineers."
Carney said every government engineering project requires a specific amount of environmental data (endangered species, hazardous materials, demographics, etc.) before being approved. "We grab different sets of information that the government needs before they can build their infrastructure project, to show that their project won't have a negative impact on the environment," said Carney.
The project that spawned Carney's business started with just three engineering alternatives that ballooned to 27 once she was done collecting all the data. She said this was a major headache for everyone involved, from the people who make the maps from Carney's data, to her boss who didn't budget for the rapidly escalating project, to the engineers who ultimately build the roads and the client who pays for it all.
Carney said her software allows planners, like herself, to simply draw a line on a map and immediately access all the pertinent environmental impact data, which dramatically speeds up the entire process. "The reaction has just been amazing," said Carney, adding: "The No. 1 thing we get is, 'You save us so much time.'"
Last summer Cubit Planning caught the attention of Austin-based business incubator the Capital Factory, which offered a select group of local startups a small amount of seed funding and the benefit of their entrepreneurial expertise.
"We applied to Capital Factory, because neither of us had any type of business experience," said Carney, who received "less than $16,000" in return for a small amount of equity in her company. "We needed someone to really say you need to set a price and you need to start charging for what you have today."
Originally Carney charged $199 for each report, but just recently introduced a monthly subscription-based model, which ranges from $499 for five reports to $999 for up to 25 reports. The one-off cost has increased to $250 and Carney also said they will deal directly with each individual subscriber to work out a price for unlimited reports.
"So if it's a massive railway project with 37 alternatives that would be a different price than a small-term lane project in a rural area," said Carney, who estimated she needs to bring in 20 reports a month to be what she referred to as "Ramen profitable," which is when the founders are making just enough to pay for the electricity and to feed themselves Ramen noodles.
Carney said her biggest challenge is to bang the drum on Cubit's new technology and get it in front of the environmental engineers, policy makers and college students that comprise her target audience. "That's a big problem that we have to solve," she said. "This is an older industry, it's a stodgier industry and it's going to take some time to talk to people and build those relationships."
Carney admitted business has been slow as the recession has led to fewer infrastructure projects being built, but she believes when the economy picks up again Cubit will be well-positioned to take advantage.
"The short term is very negative for our outlook," said Carney, who pointed out that in 2008 there were 66,000 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reports commissioned, adding the Obama Administration has pledged $1.5 billion in grants for new federal infrastructure projects. "When the money starts to shake loose, there could be a huge demand for this kind of time-saving product that we're offering for engineering firms."