How the B-School Dropouts at Bump Are Filling a Big Gap in Mobile Communications

9/13/10Follow @wroush

During his first week at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 2008, David Lieb found himself meeting dozens of new classmates and typing their names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses into his phone’s address book, one by one.

“There is this little loop running in my mind that’s always going, ‘Why are things crappy?’” Lieb says now. “That thing went off. We’ve got these $700 devices with all these sensors, connected to the Internet, but here I am using the most archaic technology to transfer information into the device or between devices. I thought that was dumb, and somebody should fix it.”

Lieb’s obsession with the mobile-device data transfer problem would eventually cause him to interrupt his business-school career. But not before he and Booth classmate Jake Mintz had won $25,000 in the school’s New Venture Challenge entrepreneurship competition for Bump—the software they created to instantly send data between any two iPhones.

Bump, which now also works on iPads, iPod Touch devices, and Android phones, is a free app that transmits contact information, photographs, calendar appointments, and social-networking IDs from one device to another wirelessly. Users initiate the transfer by literally bumping two devices together—a trick that relies on one of the aforementioned sensors, the accelerometer.

The free app has been downloaded more than 19 million times since its release in March 2009, putting it securely within the top 100 most popular iPhone apps of all time and bringing the young, Mountain View, CA-based startup considerable press coverage—along with $3 million in venture cash from Sequoia Capital and a group of celebrity angel and micro-VC investors, including Ron Conway of SV Angel, Aydin Senkut of Felicis Ventures, Ram Shriram of Sherpalo Ventures, and Joshua Schachter.

David Lieb, CEO of BumpAfter winning the New Venture Challenge and getting accepted to the summer 2009 term of the prestigious Y Combinator venture incubator program in Mountain View, Lieb and Mintz both took an indefinite leave of absence from Booth. Lieb says he has doubts about whether either of them will go back, now that they and their third co-founder, Andy Huibers, have such a big real-world business opportunity on their hands. “Obviously the school wants to produce graduates, but producing dropouts who go do exciting things is valuable, too,” says Lieb, who is now Bump’s CEO. [See a video interview with Lieb on Page 4.]

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Bump is that it fixes a longstanding problem with most Internet-enabled mobile devices. Wi-Fi and 3G Internet access is now nearly ubiquitous, so smartphones can easily connect to Web or e-mail servers that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. Oddly, however, there’s no good way to send data directly from one device to another that may be just inches away. To send contact information, photographs, or other personal data to a friend’s phone, you typically have to compose an e-mail with an attachment, or perhaps an MMS message.

One exception to this sorry state of affairs was Palm’s line of PDAs and smartphones, which—starting with the Palm III in 1998—had built-in infrared ports that allowed two Palm users to … Next Page »

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

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