Princeton Undergrad Brings Scavenger-Hunt Startup to Boston

10/1/08Follow @wroush

At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 18, 500 couples will fan out across Philadelphia in search of a $25,000 diamond ring hidden by a local jeweler. Equipped only with cell phones, the couples will receive text-message instructions directing them to an array of local landmarks, where they’ll have to complete puzzles and other challenges to earn points and get directions to their next stops. The first team to earn 100 points will be sent a riddle whose solution is the key to the diamond’s location.

It’s called the “Robbins Diamonds Scavenger Scramble,” and it will be the biggest test yet for a new Boston company called SCVNGR. Led by 19-year-old Princeton undergraduate Seth Priebatsch, the company is one of the first startups to emerge from DreamIt Ventures, a Philadelphia-based incubator similar in conception to Paul Graham’s Y Combinator, the well-known “startup camp” based in Cambridge, MA, and Mountain View, CA. SCVNGR’s shtick is running text-message-based interactive games for corporations, associations, and non-profits, using proprietary algorithms designed by two Princeton professors to efficiently direct large numbers of game players (or museum visitors, or anyone moving in space) through a series of checkpoints.

You might not think it would be very difficult to set up a scavenger hunt using text messaging, which is, after all, a 20-year-old technology. But the hard part isn’t sending out the messages, says Priebatsch; it’s knowing where to send the players. If you’ve got 500 teams competing, after all, you don’t want them all rushing to the same spots in the same order. That’s where the routing algorithms come in.

“Once you finish a question and send in the right answer, the system dynamically picks your next location and clue based on how far away the other locations are, how many people are there already, and how important the clues are,” Priebatsch explains. “You can’t know where you’re going to go ahead of time. If you played the same game 100 times you’d never take the same path.”

SCVNGR has already hosted demo scavenger hunts for organizations like the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and for Dreamit Ventures itself—where Priebatsch was in residence from May to August—and it has other events coming up at Princeton, MIT, Tufts, two museums in Boston, and one museum in Philadelphia. (A major hunt in downtown Boston, planned to coincide with Boston Arts Festival in early September, was scrubbed due to bad weather.) In just its first few weeks out of Dreamit, the company booked $25,000 in revenue, Priebatsch says.

The Boston native would be starting his sophomore year in Princeton’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) department right about now, but he’s on a one-year leave from the university to get his company off the ground. ORFE is a section of Princeton’s engineering school where students are drilled in both the technological and management skills needed to become entrepreneurs. Which sounds like the perfect place for Priebatsch; even at 19, he’s already a serial entrepreneur, having started out with the obligatory lemonade stand (albeit on Boston’s posh Newbury Street), then followed up with PostCardTech, a Boston-based startup that produces CD-ROM-based “interactive postcards” for tourists.

SCVNGR is half events company, half platform provider: at the same time that it’s mounting scavenger hunts for individual clients, the five-person startup is polishing a free, Web-based interface that allows anyone—from a mom organizing a teen’s birthday party to a museum administrator planning an innovative way for guests to explore a new exhibition—to write a series of clues and assign them to a network of locations. The company may try to monetize free games by sending out location-based advertising messages along with clues.

It all adds up to a busy schedule: “I’ve been running at 600 miles an hour and having a great time doing it,” says Priebatsch. That was certainly the case when I visited SCVNGR’s offices at TechSpace, a renovated loft in Boston’s SoWa neighborhood that’s home to dozens of small startups. In the 30 minutes I was there, Priebatsch had to excuse himself three times to deal with urgent phone calls and text messages about a scavenger hunt that was getting underway that morning at Drexel University.

The concept for the hunts came together last winter. “I was messing around with some ideas, and I thought it would be cool to build an easy-to-use, high-tech, cell-phone-based scavenger hunt that could be played from any phone,” Priebatsch says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if … Next Page »

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

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