The doorway that led to the strip club Magic Gardens is unrecognizable.
Where once men stood in the street wondering if the magic was real, now there are giant windows and security cameras. The building, which is across Fourth Avenue from the House of Louie restaurant, housed a tenement for Chinese laborers in the 19th Century. Then the upper floors stayed vacant for about 50 years, rotting in the dark. Now it has been seismically retrofit and had its beams sandblasted. With its atrium and glass conference rooms, its cereal dispensers and private meeting nooks, the second and third floors are fit for a tech company.
And the lucky new tenant is moovel (lower case m, please), the company that does the ticketing app for TriMet. All 116 staff are moved in to the 1889 Overland Warehouse (old timers know it as the Suey Sing building).
Moovel began as GlobeSherpa, which was bought by RideScout of Austin, Texas, which is owned by Daimler of Stuttgart, which also owns Mercedes Benz and the old Freightliner trucks. (Daimler also owns Car2GO, whose tiny smart cars are in the process of being upgraded to four door Benzes with a bit more swagger.)
Old Town is ready for its close up
What moovel has done is remarkable. They've come up from nothing, raised money in Portland, exited to a major multinational and decided to stay here instead of moving "to be near the money" in the Bay Area, as their commercial realtor, Ajay Malhotra of CBRE Advisory & Transaction Services, put it. "And they put their faith in Old Town Chinatown," he added.
Malhotra, being CBRE's VP of the Technology & Media Practice, shows a lot of firms around Portland. Firms that are usually looking at Austin and Salt Lake City as well. He shows them the trendy Central East Side, the cut price class A towers of downtown, the touristy Pearl, and now he has an Old Town example to round out the picture.
Skip Rotter, moovel's Vice President, Research and Development , explained that the technical challenge of coming up with a paperless ticketing system has been mostly about working with Apple and Android.
His engineers must get access to the Apple Wallet so that transactions can take place on the cloud in real time, as opposed to on a magnetic strip like on the old New York City metro cards. And getting that close to Apple takes a lot of relationship building. Apple guards its gated community fiercely, for security's sake.
"With NFC (wireless Near Field Communication) the challenge is getting access to that chip on the Apple side, which means collaborating with other third parties," said Rotter. The big fear is a type of cloning, which is so easy in the digital world. "You don't want someone to copy your phone and have access to the fare.
Rotter says they are hoping to have the Hop Fastpass system open by the end of the year. It's a tap system using NFC. For two years TriMet has been installing the NFC hardware, pads which bus and train riders can tap and have their fare calculated and deducted at once.
The new system will be similar to the one in use in Chicago, where you can manage your payment card from your phone. By the end of the year you will be able to use your phone to pay a transit fare in Chicago and Portland, thanks to the coding work going on at moovel.
To that end, TriMet is working with a systems integrator.
"There's no major hurdles, it's just about putting all the pieces together," said Rotter.
This sounds a lot the sharp end of the wedge that employers are always talking about: they don't just want people who are good at coding, they also want people who can play nicely together, people who can collaborate multiple communication channels, times zones and even languages.
Further out, the R&D department is also working on being able to pay without even taking your pone out of your pocket. It will run on low power Bluetooth or other microlocation technology.
They are also working on a partner-agnostic ticketing solution. Transit agencies around America want to be about to buy a good ticketing solution from one company (such as moovel, he hopes) and pair it with hardware from another company, rather than get stuck with using bad software made by the hardware provider. Again, the technology is ready. Much of the work is in the maneuvering and making deals.
"We're making a product they'll be able to install on any system they want."
Nat Parker, co-founder and former CEO of GlobeSherpa, and now CEO of moovel North America, took the microphone to thank everyone from girlfriends who stuck by them to city officials who helped them break into the world of government contracts.
Bright lights, smart cities
Parker announced that TriMet has just passed the $50 million mark in tickets sold through the app.
"We are positioning ourselves to be the technology partner of choice for cities to become the smart cities of the future." He said Daimler is on their side in valuing access over ownership. "…Car sharing, bike sharing, and TNCs (transportation network companies) that don't use secret spy devices and software to look at us," referring to Uber and its Greyball spyware. You know the tide is turning against Uber when an up and coming company like moovel NA publically scolds it.
Here come the electeds
Once you get good at business, the politicians come running. Think of Puppet's Luke Kanies being on first-name terms with Sen. Ron Wyden, or Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Mayor Ted Wheeler showing up for the opening of an office. Bonamici reminded everyone of her support of advanced manufacturing and STEAM, and Wheeler waxed lyrical about equity and entrepreneurism.
He joked about speaking without any hecklers at the meeting, and about moovel trying to recruit his staff away from him, telling them to stop because he couldn't afford the counter offer. Wheeler praised Portland's multimodal transportation network, "You can probably even rent a skateboard in this town," and predicted that one day "We'll be thinking back on moovel's headquarters in Old Town Chinatown," he said of the Overland Warehouse. Wheeler said the city would continue to work with them and to support their efforts to get more women and people of color into technology industry. "Thank you for building a spectacular facility, A-plus!"
TriMet was the first transit system to go open source and share data to riders would know when their buses and trains were really coming. Trimet is rightly proud of creating the General Transit Feed Specification here in Portland, a standard that is used across the U.S.
TriMet way ahead of schedule
Tim McHugh explained meeting moovel early on. "We had to explain to those two grad students (Nat Parker and Michael Gray) that no, TriMet does not have a VC arm, you have to have a product before you can come and ask for anything."
He credits them with changing the way innovation takes place, not just with the ticketing app, but also with the way they ran a scavenger hunt around the opening of the Orange Line. They used gamification to get people to shop at local merchants along the line for deals, and in turn drover downloads of the app.
Chief Technology Officer Henry Harbury (a new recruit from Act-On Software) reaffirmed that the reason Portland has had to wait for "tap" technology was the hard work of getting access to Apple's IOS application program interface (API). He thinks down the road, "The device becomes your ticket, it's almost transactionless." He believes ticketing should be about allowing most people in and excluding the people without tickets, rather than the old analog method of checking everyone's ticket to weed out the farehoppers.
Apps like the one moovel built for TriMet help people plan their whole trip, switching between bus, rideshare and bike rental for their optimal user experience"
"What does it mean for ticketing? It could be for access to a venue, gating, anything."
What was interesting was every speaker had a vision, and the vision was about making things easier for people: from the bus rider peering into the gloom waiting for a ride to the bike-renting dilettante who doesn't need to work. That is something strange and new, and it's good that it is happening in Portland.