Saturday, August 1, 2015

Temple vs Drexel: Meinzer twins' PlaySay, CityRyde

Novak Biddle-backed language-training firm launched at TechCrunch Disrupt, targets RosettaStone

Temple vs Drexel: Meinzer twins' PlaySay, CityRyde

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PlaySay boss Ryan Meinzer grew up in Hershey, where his parents, Gregory and Mary Jo, run the Hershey Trolley Works tour and street-theater business, loving entrepreneurship (he says he sold $20,000 worth of Ginsu knives one summer), and the idea of Asia (via a Taiwanese friend.) 

Meinzer went to Temple ('07) "because they were the only school I found that had a Japan campus," and stayed there in an entry-level job at a mystery-shopping firm in Tokyo.

"I had to learn Japanese fast," he told me. He wasn't a computer scientist, but he'd been webmaster for student groups at Temple. He designed his own simple "digital flash card" system, in which he could point to objects and make translated names for them appear, and eventually synthesize their sounds. "I don't learn through pictures or memory. I'm musically inclined, toward oral and auditory learning," he told me.

In a Tokyo bar he met Kevin Yu, then a PayPal executive, now with Tesla Motors. They talked about Meinzer's language-learner project. "He said, 'This is a business,' and gave me some money." Meizner moved home "in search of linguists, programmers and the whole start-up environment." He and five programmers built PlaySay "in three months, working around the clock."

Systematically researching US education investors, Meinzer applied to and won funding from Bethesda-based Novak Biddle Venture Partners (they also back Mike Hagan's Yardley-based digital-based alarm system LifeShield) via partner Sean Glass (formerly of Higher One before its 2010 IPO).

"You have this $5 billion US market, this $80 billion global market, for language learning," Novak Biddle partner Phil Bronner told me. "Rosetta Stone created a software application that costs $800 or $1,000, and if you sit in front of it for hours, you'd learn. But Ryan sent out to find a system that was both effective, and also engaging." On PlaySay you want to know the word for "man," you point to a man on the screen, and progressively step up to that man's friends and family members and the acts a man can commit, in all their verb tenses.

PlaySay signs up users through a Facebook portal that will in time separate casual (free) from in-depth (paying) users. Meinzer says he's drawn $570,000 from backers so far, mostly from Novak Biddle. 

The system debuted yesterday at the TechCrunch Disrupt show in San Francisco. There are iPhone and Android apps and a partnerhsip with textbook publisher McGraw Hill. Meinzer says he's living the "entrepreneur's life" he always wanted, and staying in daily touch with his identical twin and fellow entrepreneur, Jason, who graduated Drexel, stayed in Philly, and has set up his own firm, CityRyde, a kind of Zipcar for bicycles.

"I started this with my partner Timothy Ericson as a result of a weekend trip to Paris," where they tripped across a French bike-sharing program that fascinated them, Jason Meinzer told me. They tried to raise $15 million to build their own in the U.S. "We were hopeful. Young. Naive."

Instead, they ended up consulting to existing bike-sharing programs. "They all needed new revenue streams. So we focused on what we knew best, which was building software, within the bike-sharing market." They raised $350,000 from angel financiers to develop a United Nations-validated carbon credit software program they've sold to European and Chinese bike-sharing networks, for a share of the programs' carbon credits.  "And we've moved on," Jason concluded. "Last week we launched a mobile application," Rewardeed, which tracks carbon credits as consumers bike, or recycle, for example. (Revised)

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PhillyDeals posts drafts, transcripts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area business, which he's been writing since 1989.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn and taught writing at St. Joseph's. He has written thousands of columns and articles for the Inquirer, Bloomberg and other media, wrote the book Comcasted, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

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Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

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