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A trio of local companies prepare to begin betas

Posted by Scott Kirsner  June 17, 2010 08:00 AM

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I've run into three entrepreneurs this week who are getting ready to begin beta tests of new products.

- Shelby Clark tells me that his new peer-to-peer car-sharing service RelayRides (I've described it as Zipcar without the fleet) logged the first rental of its summer beta test in Cambridge last night. RelayRides had a demo table at the Web Innovators Group last Monday night, and company employees were out in Central Square this week handing out postcards. The company is both looking for potential drivers as well as car owners willing to assign their car's unused hours to the service, and earn money in return. Clark tells me the vehicles available include a Toyota Prius and, amazingly, a Porsche Cayenne. (Vehicles start at $6 an hour for older models, and the Cayenne rents for $14 an hour.) The company is currently based at the Polaris-run DogPatch Lab space in East Cambridge.

- Brothers Kyle and Matt Rushton are both still working day jobs, but they're also nudging Blogcastr, a live-blogging tool, toward a closed beta test in the next few weeks. The idea is to make it easy for folks "blogcasting" from live events (publishing repeated updates) to share both text and photos (and eventually, audio and video, too) with readers, who'll be able to add their comments and reactions. The Rushton siblings started work on Blogcastr late last year, and they're hoping to get the service up-and-running before looking for angel funding.

- Vikram Venkatasubramanian and two other alums of Avaya are working on a neat voice-driven service called TopicPhone. Their idea is that it's still too complicated to navigate phone menus (especially on a mobile) by pressing 1 for sales, 2 for customer service, or 3 for billing. With TopicPhone, the goal is to enable a caller to say, "I need to have my house painted," and then serve up a choice of several painters in the vicinity. They plan to operate TopicPhone as an 800 service that would be free to callers, and initially focus on serving the elderly and visually impaired. Venkatasubramanian tells me his advisory board includes he has been getting some informal advice from Ron Croen, the former CEO and founder of Nuance, and now an entrepreneur-in-residence at Tufts.

As for the business model, Venkatasubramanian explained in an e-mail:

The revenue model for TopicPhone is an auction-based, pay-per-call model where businesses bid for the phone calls (which represent a 7-10 times more valuable lead than a web click) that are relevant to topics of interest for their business. We plan a TopicPhone premium [service] at a later date which is subscription-based and stores information about the callers, such as their prescription codes, bank account numbers, etc. so that they are able to do things like check their bank balances or refill their prescriptions by just stating that need.

(And if you're working on something that's getting close to launch, I'm eager to hear about it; just drop me a line using the comment box at right or by clicking my name.)

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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