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Founder Profile: John Collins of Fleet Genius (Prova Systems)

John Collins’ degree from the University of Chicago was in history, but like many liberal-arts majors, he was drawn to the excitement of the high-tech world after graduating in 1984 and never looked back.

A serial entrepreneur, Collins eventually found himself back in New York City, where he was born, working with the Eleksen Group, a company that made electro-sensitive textiles. In the course of that job, he discovered hardware designer John Yaron and software/firmware designer Franco DiRosa — they were in Carbondale working on a promising product.

He teamed up with them, and the result was a fleet-management system, Fleet Genius, that allows managers of fleets of cars and light-duty trucks to keep track of their vehicles’ performance and engine health, among other data.

Their company Prova Systems, founded in 2010, sells its hardware and software directly to 262 fleet owners, and its hardware through OEM agreements with eight partners from all over the world whose customers include governments and universities.

What inspired you to start Prova Systems?

In 1986, the EPA mandated that all light-duty vehicles and cars have an on-board diagnostic port so the government could check the emissions performance of the vehicle. That port [provided] a lot of interesting and valuable diagnostic data. Before it existed, there was no way for a fleet owner to get information on the health of those vehicles.

As the EPA specifications became more mature, there was a growing interest among fleet managers in getting the diagnostic data. Prior to this capability, they were stuck just using GPS — they could track the location of their vehicles, and they might be able to calculate the mileage on them, but they could never query the engine to find out what was happening.

If you’re a fleet manager and you have 10 or 50 or 1,000 vehicles, remote management of those vehicles is pretty critical. Knowing where they are can be helpful, but also knowing if they have problems is an advantage.

So we started working on solving that problem, providing remote tracking of the performance and health of the vehicle itself. The engineers had designed the base hardware: the module that talked to the car and the wireless system that talked to the base station.

I had experience selling to enterprises. So my role was talking to potential customers and collecting information on product requirements, and forwarding that to the engineers to make sure they developed what the customer needed.

We also found that we needed an application that met the needs of the fleet managers. That was my product contribution to the business.

How did you get started?

I was still going back and forth to London a lot, and on one of those visits, I got a call from John Yaron saying that a company in France was very interested in our technology, and asking me to pop over to Paris and visit with them. I went, and they definitely had an interest and felt it was something their customers wanted and needed.

I came back, we called some other people and found there was an interest, so we decided to give it a shot and see where we could take it. That was in the fall of 2010.

We started working with Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP) of Northeastern PA to get seed capital and to help us meet some of our goals, like building the software platform. 

We built a cloud-based system that would make it easier for companies to start using our technology. We started selling the hardware to partners, building relationships with resellers, who already had software and were looking for a telematics solution that did diagnostics like ours. They became our first channel, the OEM hardware channel.

We set up our offices in the Carbondale Technology Transfer Center, an incubator funded in part by BFTP. 

It was a bootstrap startup. We looked around for money, but the best place we found was the Ben Franklin, which has been a great partner to have. Their program is pretty unique; they’re more hands-off than most investors.

Did you take advantage of any other resources in the area?

We’re in a [Keystone Innovation Zone] location, so we use that to get tax credits, which is quite helpful. The rent for the incubator space is reasonable. We participated in a business plan competition in the Scranton area and won the non-student division which gave us $50,000 in cash and in-kind services. This is a great place to be for a small company that wants to bootstrap.

How has the business grown?

We’ve just upgraded our office space to accommodate growth. We’ve added two more full-time people to our team, for a total of five, and we have two contractors who come in on an as-needed basis. We will be adding more in the next 12 months.

About two years ago, we started selling the Fleet Genius directly to small- to mid-size companies (and some larger ones) with fleets. They get our hardware and software bundled together.

We have 262 fleets whose owners we sell to directly, and eight partners in various phases of development, including the U.S. government, universities, the Canadian government, and companies in Mexico, South America, France (our first customer) and Nigeria.

What kind of companies are your partners?

Organizations that already have an application with a significant customer base, and are looking for telematics hardware to drive the automatic collection of data. Some are fleet management companies and some are asset management companies.

The fleet management companies want to track utilization, fuel economy, driver behavior, driver profiles, the performance of the vehicles, and so on. We help with that process.

We also have a big customer who does fleet pool management; Cornell University is one of their customers, using our hardware on 600 to 800 vehicles.

What has been the biggest challenge in getting Prova Systems of the ground?

Keeping things going without significant investments from venture capital companies has been a challenge. Investors bring good and bad things to the table; there’s usually some sort of string attached. We have made the decision to fund it mostly ourselves; we’re keeping tight control over the business.

Also, there’s a dearth of talent in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I live in Brooklyn, and I’m surrounded by tons of programmers. In Scranton, you have to look really hard for programmers. But in New York, it’s very complicated to get any economic development funding. In Carbondale, there’s a better shot at being successful when competing for the cash available from economic development organizations.

What’s next for your company?

In 2015 we’re releasing our product for heavy-duty vehicles, including big trucks and construction vehicles. We’ll be expanding our market to vehicles that are more expensive, so the investment in management tools is more significant.

The change to heavy-duty vehicles will include GPA monitoring of all the vehicles, so customers will be able to have a history of where the vehicle has been. That’s a significant change for us.

We’re also in the process of testing a wi-fi version of our hardware, and that will open up the market again.

Writer: Susan L. Pena
10 Enterprise Drive Carbondale, PA 18407

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