Ex Googlers Want to Put the Zen in Driving by Quantifying the Experience; Jerry Yang, Max Levchin Back the Startup

At a coffee joint on the outer ring road in Bangalore, where a major traffic jam two weeks ago had held up thousands of vehicles, I’m being asked a fundamental question : If a driver’s happiness can be quantified could it be improved? Ex Googlers Jonathan Matus and Pankaj Risbood think so.Zendrive Jonathan Matus Pankaj Risbood

“Driving is a broken experience. It is something we all do but it is stressful, boring and dangerous,” says Jonathan, an American-Israeli who has teamed up with Bangalore based Pankaj to start a company called Zendrive. The duo want to quantify the driving experience and apply technology to bring down the elements that make the driver miserable.

Jonathan,32, isn’t ready to talk about the specifics of the product yet. But the company has already raised $1.5 mn from First Round Capital, Paypal co-founder Max Levchin, Yahoo’s founder Jerry Yang and author Tim Ferriss.

But driving is a complex problem and how on earth do you quantify happiness?  

“Imagine a formula where there are parameters that contribute to making the experience negative and we go tackling them,” says Jonathan, President & CEO, Zendrive. The idea is to break down the problem into many quantifiable parts like the amount of time a driver spends on the road, the amount of time the car is going slower than it can, the time at which the driver leaves home among other things and optimize them.

Both Jonathan and Pankaj have worked on big problems before. The duo worked on Google’s speech recognition project which is now part of Google’s voice search. As Jonathan moved on to the initial team which built the Android operating system and spent nearly five years there before joining Facebook, Risbood was taking on data infrastructure at Google Compute project and later at Walmart Labs.

“The space we want to be is to take insights and data and help people with better experience,” says Jonathan as he points out how his UP wristband by Jawbone tracks the sleep pattern and helps improve his life. “If I know that I have had only a couple of hours of deep sleep, it is probably a good idea to catch a nap so that I can work better,” he says. Max Levchin, one of the investors in the startup is a proponent of the quantified self.

There are large companies looking at similar problems. Google with driverless cars, Ford with its “cars are computing platforms,” theory, Nissan with the Nismo smartwatch and others are trying to make cars smarter. “We love the companies that share our vision. But any solution that is married to a car is flawed by definition,” says Jonathan, who learned at Facebook and Google that mobile phones can be one of the most frictionless ways of distributing Zendrive’s solutions.

“We are more about the person in the drivers seat. Car companies are more about smarter cars,” says Pankaj, a data geek. Zendrive will focus on markets with a large smartphone penetration to begin with. The startup has built a lot of “piping under the hood,” and is adding engineers to its growing team. Meanwhile, designers and researchers employed by the company are interviewing drivers to understand their pain points.

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