Opower looks overseas

Monday, March 14, 2011

With three seed investments in local companies, a new partnership with George Mason University and plans to raise an institutional fund next year, the first three months of 2011 have kept Amplifier Ventures Managing Director Jonathan Aberman busy.

Amplifier tends to "cluster investments to make a number at the same time and then we work closely with them" on business decisions, Aberman said. "It's much more intensive than a typical angel investment."

The local companies to which Aberman's McLean firm just recently funneled seed money are Small Act, a social media company for nonprofits; Ozmosis, a network for doctors to swap medical knowledge; and Sponto, a smartphone app for college students to track where their peers congregate. Aberman said investments range from $50,000 to $100,000.

His firm also plans to open a satellite office at GMU as part of the Mason Enterprise Initiative, the university's effort to bolster its entrepreneurial chops by raising $1 million to seed start-ups. Aberman will play a lead role in the initiative and serve on a panel that evaluates the university's own intellectual property for market potential.

Finally, Amplifier aims to grow its own coffers, which have tallied about $8 million to date. The firm is looking to raise a larger institutional fund in the next year to continue its work with burgeoning businesses.

"We really roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty with these guys, and if I had a larger fund, I'd still do that," he said.

Opower looks overseas

Before last August, Opower president and co-founder Alex Laskey had never been to London. Last week, he embarked on his sixth trip to the United Kingdom's capital.

Though the company has no formal plans to cross the Atlantic yet, Laskey said executives are laying the foundation for an international outpost. The company's software that keeps tabs on consumers' energy consumption and encourages them to reduce it has caught the attention of foreign utilities, he said.

"The utility world is a relatively small one . . . and we've developed a really nice reputation here [in the United States], so some of the big utilities [abroad] are starting to call us," Laskey said.

He said the company has tripled in size since last March when President Obama paid its Arlington headquarters a visit. It now counts 180 employees with the U.S. market still ripe for expansion.

An arm, a leg and a Web site

High prices at the pump mean more traffic for James Kovarik's Web site.

The former general manager of AOL Travel left the company in October 2008 to launch a site that lets users calculate the cost of a road trip and compare it to airfare. Its algorithms plot where on a route drivers are likely to need a refill and finds the cheapest price.

But the cost of gasoline began trending downward soon after Cost2Drive launched, Kovarik said, and with it went motorists' preoccupation with the daily price per gallon. "The business model, which was advertising based, was dependent on higher volume of traffic than we were seeing," he said.

Prices are climbing again and the site's number of daily visitors has tripled to about 1,200 so far. Kovarik, who had shifted his attention to consulting work, has returned focus to the Web site and now plans to unfurl a smartphone component.

"To be frank, that was an oversight," he said. "The traffic coming from mobile devices is soaring so we're moving rapidly to first move out a mobile Web site and then follow with a native iPhone and Android apps."

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