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Henry Ford's Great-Grandson Invests in Public Transit

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., at the North American International Auto Show in 2012

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., at the North American International Auto Show in 2012

Given Detroit’s worship of the automobile, you wouldn’t think public transit would be high on its priority list, but on Wednesday transit ticketing startup Masabi revealed that one of the automotive industry’s most recognized names, Bill Ford, has taken a strategic and monetary interest in the company.

Bill Ford is, of course, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, and the executive chairman of the company that bears his name. He also co-founded a venture capital firm called Fontinalis Partners that focuses on next-generation mobile technologies. Fontinalis is leading a $2.8 million investment round in Masabi with participation from London’s MMC Ventures and existing backer M8 Capital. The company has already gone through several funding rounds, raising $2 million in 2010 and $4 million in 2011. M8 led both rounds.

London-based Masabi said that the strategic investment is aimed at promoting its mobile ticketing technology to U.S. transit agencies, building off its success in the U.K. (it has 13 transit contracts across the pond), and its recent deployment with Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. To date, the company claims it has processed $50 million in ticket sales worldwide and $3 million alone from the MBTA since its system went live in November.

Masabi’s key product is called JustRide, a cloud-based end-to-end ticketing platform that allows riders to purchase, manage, and store transit tickets and passes in their mobile phones. Users can buy tickets from an app in their smartphones rather than wait in ticket lines. For train systems with conductors, the tickets show up as animated watermarks easily identified by ticket takers. For automated ticket systems, the app will display a QR code that will get you through the turnstile. Masabi is also upgrading its software to support near-field communications (NFC) in the future.

Boston, for instance, still utilizes smart card ticketing—which also can be linked to the JustRide platform—but the gradual move of its smartphone-toting ridership to the cloud-based ticketing service saves it millions of dollars in ticketing machine and backend infrastructure.

Though smartphone-initiated mobile payments haven’t exactly taken off in the U.S., transit ticketing is starting to become a key component of the digital wallet. The carriers’ mobile wallet Isis may still be limited to two cities, but it’s become popular as a mobile pass for Salt Lake City’s public transit system. Amtrak has started accepting digital tickets on the iPhone, and all of the major airlines now have boarding pass features in their apps.

As for Ford’s interest in public transit technologies, the chairman appears to be throwing his money in the same direction as his rhetoric. Ford has spoken several times about how, at the current rate of growth, the number of cars on the world’s highways would soon lead to massive congestion problems. His proposed answer is coordination between public transit and intelligent traffic management systems to better control the flow of billions of people as they go about their daily lives.

Fontinalis has invested in many startups designed to make cars smarter such as Streetline, Life360, and Parkmobile, but it’s also invested in companies like Masabi and Wheelz, which go against Ford’s vested interest in individual car ownership.

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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