Location, Location, Location: uLocate Acquires Zync, and Other Location-Based News

2/8/08Follow @wroush

There are certain days in the news cycle where everything seems related. Today’s theme is location-based services. I started the day with some work on a piece about SpotScout, the Web- and mobile-based service that helps you find and reserve parking spaces. (Look for my story about their upcoming launch in Boston next week.) Then we got word via PE Week that Polaris Venture Partners is leading a $3.05 million Series A investment round in PublicEarth, a stealth-mode San Francisco startup that’s apparently building a directory of geo-coded, user-contributed content for delivery to location-aware mobile devices. (We’re working on digging up some more information about that one, too.)

Then I got through by phone to Dan Gilmartin at uLocate, one of Boston’s leading location-based-services startups. A lot has happened at uLocate since I last dropped by. A few weeks ago uLocate announced that it had acquired the Buddy Beacon friend-finder service from Sky Dayton’s Los Angeles-based cellular company, Helio. The service, which uLocate developed and hosted for Helio, is one of the most distinctive features of Helio’s hip phones. “We talked with the folks at Helio and came to the mutual conclusion that it would be best if we were really owning and running that product, so that we could effect wider distribution,” Gilmartin told me. That was all he could say—but he did hint that we should watch for an announcement related to Buddy Beacon and that key word, distribution.

Gilmartin also related some news about a string of wins for uLocate’s core Where platform, a collection of location-based widgets that mobile-phone users can access through the so-called “vending machines” or third-party content catalogs on their cell phones. (The user-review site Yelp, for example, has a Where widget that grabs a location fix from a cell phone’s internal hardware then searches for nearby restaurants, shopping, or nightclubs, and the like.) The Where platform was previously only available to customers of Sprint, Alltel Wireless, and Boost Mobile, but it’s now accessible to all Helio, MetroPCS, and AT&T Wireless customers. (All except for us iPhone-owning AT&T customers—we’ll have to wait for Apple to release its software developers kit later this month, and for uLocate engineers to then adapt the Where platform as a native third-party iPhone application.)

And in other news (and this is the really new news) uLocate is now the proud owner of another Boston-area startup, Zync. Founded in Cambridge in 2006 by MIT Sloan graduate Brad Rosen and Sapient veterans David Owens and Joshua Summers, Zync is a hyperlocal social networking site and recommendation engine that uses collaborative filtering algorithms to help people find activities they might like in their own areas. I can’t really describe the company any better than Rosen, the CEO, does in the company’s blog: “We’re making ‘local’ personal—enabling faster and easier dicovery of relevant new stuff to do with your free time,” Rosen writes. “Zync applies personalization algorithms to find People Like You™ and pushes activity suggestions to you proactively.” Sounds pretty cool, if you can overlook the way Zync is trying to Trademark a Common Phrase™.

All five of Zync’s employees have joined uLocate, where Gilmartin says they’ll help the company expand from mobile services into Web-based offerings. Parts of Zync’s patented recommendation system, which suggests local activities based on the preferences of like-minded people, may also wind up inside the Where platform, where it could help people discover new widgets. “The ability to offer up that same type of personalization technology within our Where platform is where we see great synergy,” says Gilmartin.

The acquisition, announced yesterday, won’t affect the Zync website, which will continue to operate in its current form, Gilmartin says. I asked him whether the Where platform might be used to mobilize Zync’s content—which is, after all, heavily location-based—but he said “We’re not going down that path yet. The Zync guys have done a great job with hyperlocal content, and they’ve really nailed Boston. We’re looking for ways to leverage that technology to deliver a great experience across all our products.”

By the way, Zync is homonymous with, but not to be confused with, Zink, the Waltham, MA-based inkless printing company we covered a month back.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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