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New iPhone app for drivers, RoadAhead, organizes the world by exit

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 11, 2011 07:30 AM

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roadahead1.pngI've had a chance to play with a pre-release version of the new iPhone app RoadAhead, built by a team in Winchester, and it's a great addition to any iPhone that ever hits the highway.

The free app, which just appeared in the iTunes Store today, is like an expanded and annotated version of those highway signs that tell you what restaurants, hotels, and gas stations you can find at the next exit. What if you could compare the gas prices of the stations at the next exit, versus those 30 miles down the road? What if you could make sure you never drove past another doughnut shop with a five-star rating on Yelp? RoadAhead can help.

As you speed down the highway, you can ask your passenger to open up the RoadAhead app. (You should never use it while driving, of course.) It relies on the phone's internal GPS to figure out what highway you're on, and in which direction you're traveling. The app then generates a list of the upcoming exits. You can ask it to display just businesses in certain categories (pharmacies or ATMs, for instance), and to limit what it shows by proximity (leaving out stuff that's further than a mile from the exit.)

Some backstory on the business model and the company...

RoadAhead founder Jeffrey Beir says he expects the app will remain free for consumers. To generate revenue, he'll charge businesses to promote discounts — and ideally rope in new customers — with the app. "We know that at some point in the future, the user is looking for gas, food, or lodging, and that's somewhat unique," he says. "When you look at all of the sites promoting special offers and deals, they're all focused on major metro areas." By contrast, RoadAhead is focusing on the rest of the country. "The only way for these businesses to make themselves known to a traveler has been to pay to get their name on that physical sign on the side of the road," Beir says.

roadahead2.pngThe app works across the U.S. (even in Alaska and Hawaii.) Beir says he hopes to add in information about local events and activities in a future release.

Beir says that he and Bob Rainis, a fellow Lotus alum, have been working on the app with a team of contractors since last Christmas. They've raised "a couple hundred thousand dollars" from Beir and "a few other former venture guys," Beir says. (He left North Bridge Venture Partners in late 2009.) "It started as a hobby kind of project," he says. "It wasn't clear that it could be a real product or company. But it sucked me in."

In addition to developing the app, Beir says he has been making a few investments of his own through an entity he calls Between Novels. So far, the firm has invested in Krush, OpenExchange Communications, and a third company that Beir wouldn't name. "I think it fits in between angel investing and large venture capital," Beir says. "The model will be around these mid-cap opportunities, companies that may need $3 million to $5 million to prove their revenue and business model, and break even, while preserving good exit opportunities."

Beir says that Between Novels will typically write a $500,000 initial check to help a company "get to a specific milestone," and then add another half-million or million to "prove the next metric." He hopes to use a handful of his own personal investments as proof points, and then put together a $50 million to $75 million fund, though he acknowledges that these are "challenging times" in which to raise a new venture fund.

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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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