Rothschild Makes Comeback With London Cab App to Rival Uber

Nathaniel Rothschild, whose ancestor helped bankroll Britain’s war against Napoleonic France 200 years ago, is backing London cabbies in their battle against Uber Technologies Inc.

Rothschild and 39-year-old Argentine Gabriel Campos, former chief executive officer of online gaming site Pokerstars, plan to launch a taxi-sharing mobile-phone app in the next few weeks. Maaxi Ltd. aims to make traditional black cabs cheaper than public transport by grouping passengers with similar destinations, Campos said in a Sept. 23 phone interview.

Investors are pouring cash into apps that let customers order taxis and cars, or share rides using their smartphones. Uber, which is available in more than 150 cities in 45 countries, raised $1.2 billion in June, giving the San Francisco-based company a value of $17 billion. Ride-sharing app Lyft Inc. raised $250 million from investors including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in April.

The investment by Rothschild, who joins Campos as the company’s major shareholder, comes after the financier took a sabbatical to finish a master’s degree at King’s College London.

Rothschild, 43, has used video and Twitter to market Maaxi as an alternative to car services such as Uber, which triggered protests by London cabbies who say the car-sharing service threatens jobs.

Expansion Funds

In a promotional video posted by Maaxi on YouTube last week, Rothschild checks his watch before taking a shared cab from Harrods department store to Westminster for a meeting with U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. “The chancellor is expecting you,” says an unidentified driver in the clip.

Maaxi will need additional funds for expansion, said Campos. He declined to comment on the prospects of a share sale for Maaxi, which has been developing the app for almost two years.

While charges will depend on how many people share a cab, the size of London’s hackney carriages and their accessible seats makes them perfect for ride sharing, Campos said. About 1,000 drivers have been signed up in the past 10 days as the app moves toward its official start, he said.

“There’s no way that any company like this can thrive unless the constituents are very happy for the long run,” he said. “Maaxi allows people not to own a car and move door-to-door at any point at any time at a very affordable price because the capacity exists and the vehicles exist.”

Efficient Routing

Rothschild declined to be interviewed when contacted by e-mail.

The financier has been prolific on Twitter, posting updates on Maaxi and engaging with both skeptical and supportive black-cab drivers. Earlier this week, Rothschild posted photos from inside black cabs as he shared journeys with the first users in a trial run.

“Door-to-door shared rides are going to be like dining at the Ritz compared to TfL,” he posted on Sept. 20, referring to Transport for London which controls the city’s buses, metro and overland train network.

Maaxi drivers will be better compensated for ride sharing than rivals, said Campos, adding that further details would be announced at the app’s launch. Maaxi’s technology in terms of routing and ensuring efficient journey-matching is more advanced, according to Campos.

Under Fire

Uber added a service in August -- Uber Pool -- that lets people do the equivalent of carpooling, in a race to be the dominant car-hailing service.

Uber opened a new black cab service in June for customers using its app and described its 5 percent commission as the lowest in London. Campos declined to say how much commission Maaxi would make from bookings.

“We’ve already welcomed hundreds of cabbies to Uber, and signups are increasing rapidly by the day,” a spokesperson for Uber said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Competition is a great thing for the consumer. Londoners are voting with their fingers by downloading apps like Uber.”

Uber has come under fire from traditional taxi drivers worldwide who say they are bound by rules that don’t apply to the smartphone-based system. Cabbies in London yesterday snarled traffic as they called for a rethink of the city’s policies on rickshaws, illegal minicabs, unlicensed operators and Uber’s car-sharing service.

In London, only licensed black cabs can pick up passengers on the street. Drivers of these hackney carriages typically take two to four years to learn 320 routes through the center of the city, plus 25,000 streets and landmarks in a bid to pass a test called the Knowledge.

Oil Producer

Rothschild is on the board of Genel Energy Plc, a company he founded in 2011 along with former BP Plc CEO Tony Hayward, which is now the largest oil producer in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He owns 9 percent of the $4 billion company.

A year earlier he struck a $3 billion coal deal with Indonesia’s powerful Bakrie family to create Bumi Plc. The venture, which Rothschild has since called a “terrible mistake,” was unwound earlier this year following a public dispute with the Bakries that coincided with a slump in the price of the power-station fuel.

Rothschild, a scion of the British arm of the European banking dynasty, is the youngest of four children of Jacob, the fourth Baron Rothschild, who heads RIT Capital Partners Plc, which managed about 2.2 billion pounds ($3.6 billion) at June 30.

Maaxi offers Rothschild the chance to make an investment with social dimension, said Campos.

“The opportunity was fantastic for him in terms of being able to do something that has real social impact, that makes transportation very affordable,” Campos said. “The social impact is the piece that moved Nat the most.”