Startup Zipano sells privacy software to control who can find you - Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, May 7, 2010

Startup Zipano sells privacy software to control who can find you

Ziv Baum often uses the term "space" as a synonym for "market"; he says that mobile technology is "the space that I live in."

The space you're in - and who knows you're there - has been Mr. Baum's specialty since he co-founded Zipano Technologies one year ago as a project looking to make on-the-go Internet users more comfortable with sharing their location.

Now, the South Side company is on the verge of securing major contracts as location-based social media networks grow in popularity - and privacy concerns rise with them.

Location-based networks such as FourSquare or Google Latitude allow users to "check in" and let friends know when they're at a certain place, sort of like Facebook with GPS.

Zipano specializes in privacy software that customizes who can find your location and when they can see it. For example: Maybe some friends can find you only when you're at Point State Park, or colleagues can see your location only during work hours on a Wednesday afternoon.

Zipano software also lets you check to see who has looked up your location and whether the request was denied. When such customizing is offered, user activity doubles - a major selling point for this company as location-based networks see clientele expand from easygoing early adopters to a more skeptical general public.

Already, the FourSquare site has seen opposition in the form of PleaseRobMe.com, a website that publishes when a user "checks in" somewhere and presumably leaves his home susceptible to thieves.

Mr. Baum's response to that site?

"Great," he said.

After serving a stint in the Israeli army and earning a degree in computer science, Mr. Baum headed to Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business three years ago, choosing a prestigious program in an unknown city.

"It's not the America you want to find when you come to America," he said.

Pittsburgh didn't offer the famous landmarks of New York or the cinematic glamour of Los Angeles, and Mr. Baum thought he'd leave after school and "get a job at the Googles or the Microsofts of the world."

But at Carnegie Mellon, Mr. Baum took a class with Norman Sadeh, a professor in the school of computer science. As a research tool, they developed a Facebook application called Locaccino.

The Locaccino app is added to Facebook profiles and allows users to locate friends using a computer or cell phone's internal GPS system - but only after completing a personalized survey that establishes strict user preferences.

Dr. Sadeh said the Zipano technology was designed for everyday, harmless scenarios - like the mother checking to see if her son has left school, or the student trying to find a study group.

"People tend to get many phone calls, and many of these calls are just 'Where are you?'" said Dr. Sadeh.

Locaccino has been downloaded by more than 10,000 users, and a Google Android phone version had more than 1,000 users in its first month.

But it wasn't making any money.

Following a trend becoming more common at Pittsburgh's incubating universities, the two decided to commercialize their research.

Zipano was formed in April 2009 with funding from Carnegie Mellon and Innovation Works, the South Side nonprofit venture capital firm.

Zipano specializes in software development, and Mr. Baum describes his product as "sitting" atop the location-based network as a self-regulated censor or guard - as though the cell phone company bought the house but Zipano installed the locks.

Regulating who can find your location keeps stalker concerns at bay but also helps manage the personas we create for different groups, said C. Matthew Curtin, co-author of "Developing Trust: Online Privacy and Security."

Mr. Curtin said the critical concern with online privacy was keeping your social circles - work, family, friends - separate.

Products like Zipano's "make a lot of sense for being able to try and assert some of that control over how you manage information about you," he said.

The Zipano software isn't a "one size fits all" model, which means the company can seek contracts with various industries - from popular websites to GPS manufacturers to cell phone carriers.

Mr. Baum heads the company full time, and Dr. Sadeh's official title is chairman and chief scientist.

He described himself as more of a consigliere to the young company, helping with business strategy and access to his Rolodex.

The company expects a contract to be secured with a major European carrier within two to three months, and also is in talks with a domestic GPS manufacturer.

Mr. Baum said Zipano could charge providers for every user who signs up, or charge every time a location request is processed through a Zipano server. The company also is considering licensing its technology and selling it to major carriers for further development.

As a young company, Zipano is preparing test runs with potential clients who want to make sure the technology scales well and can accommodate an audience that numbers in the millions.

"The proof is in the pudding," said Dr. Sadeh. "And we believe our pudding tastes pretty good."

It's too early to speculate on Zipano's long-term future, he said, such as whether the company will expand or seek acquisition from the Googles or Microsofts of the world.

But like for any young startup, it doesn't take much for Zipano to dream big.

Zipano wants to tailor its user settings to other location-tracking applications, such as a program that lets you choose when you see certain ads.

You could walk right by the Gap and - buzz - your phone lights up with a 20 percent off denim coupon.

Mr. Baum also sees possibilities in sharing your personal calendar with select people, or even customizing who can see your medical records as those move online.

Helping to prepare all of this are four part-time employees: three developers and a business manager. True to form, two are in Pittsburgh, one is in Boston and another works in Miami.

And you can check on that.

Article Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette