Matt Zito, the managing partner at Travel Startups Incubator (TSI), believes that technological innovation in the travel industry has been underwhelming, and his company is aiming to reverse that trend on a scale greater than what anyone else is doing.

TSI is set up as a Florida limited liability company. Using an initial investment of $1 million, it has so far funded 16 start-ups. Zito said it has enough capital to fund 25 to 30 start-ups in all and provide them with the right connections to get their products to market.

Start-ups apply to become part of the incubator, and TSI invests $25,000 in each, then works with them for a minimum of six months. It typically comes in at a very early investment stage for the start-up. In exchange, TSI negotiates an equity stake ranging from 6% to 12%.

"At the core, we just help build the company," Zito said.

The incubator provides advice, mentoring and business-development services and helps companies attract additional capital down the line.

"There's no one that's doing what we're doing in the world today," Zito said.

Tony D'Astolfo, managing director of Phocuswright, keeps a close eye on the start-up world and incubators such as TSI. Phocuswright holds its Travel Innovation Summit each year and recently launched its own Travel Innovation Platform, which provides research and learning opportunities as well as networking, consulting and more for travel technology companies.

Phocuswright is owned by Northstar Travel Group, the parent of Travel Weekly.

In addition to TSI, there are other incubators working in the travel space, albeit at a smaller scale, D'Astolfo said. For example, several European incubators, such as Welcome City Lab in Paris, Startup Turismo in Italy and Tech London accept travel tech start-ups but not exclusively.

Plug and Play in Sunnyvale, Calif., is a well-established start-up accelerator, D'Astolfo said, that just recently started investing in the travel vertical.

RunUpLabs is an accelerator fully dedicated to travel technology, with about eight start-ups in its portfolio, including Trekkable, which appeared at the Travel Innovation Summit last year. Trekkable helps travelers with mobility issues identify the kind of experience hotel rooms will give them and helps secure a proper room, including special-service requests.

TSI was started because of a perceived void in the marketplace. Zito said his company is likely the most active investor in travel technology, and the company is dedicated solely to the travel industry.

D'Astolfo agreed that no one else is investing in travel start-ups at the scale of TSI.

"The thing that I think is great is the fact that they're 100% dedicated to travel, which is somewhat unusual," D'Astolfo said. "There are a lot of venture firms and private equity firms that dabble in travel, and they might have a couple travel investments. But it's great to go with somebody who's deeply steeped in it and has built up a whole group of advisers who have that real subject matter expertise and deep domain expertise in the travel industry."

TSI has been working with start-ups for a little over a year and a half. Zito said the company's nature as a global investor means it can't gather its start-ups in a common geographical location to develop technology Silicon Valley-fashion, so the incubator has developed a way to group them virtually through its proprietary TSI Platform.

"It's a communication and networking and business development platform, so it connects the four key stakeholders": start-ups, advisers/mentors, travel corporations and investors, Zito said. "We know that we're building better companies because of how we're leveraging the platform and all of the four stakeholders."

He estimated that the platform is about 70% complete and is already in use by start-ups, investors and mentors, who can all connect on it. For example, TSI communicates with the start-ups via the platform, and the start-ups use it to network with advisers and mentors. It also incorporates an investor network, or "deal room," for when start-ups come out of the incubator seeking additional investments.

Right now, TSI gives corporate partners updates on its start-ups offline, but Zito said the company intends to bring that onto the TSI Platform, as well.

The incubator works with a number of different types of start-ups, but it places an emphasis on technology that is either fully mobile or offers a mobile component.

"We look at mobile first because we feel like mobile's going to really change the travel industry as a whole," Zito said.

For example, TSI recently funded GoHero, a mobile travel chat start-up that uses both artificial and human intelligence to help travelers manage bookings and access travel information via text chat. Zito said its creators plan to offer a white-label version of the technology for travel agents to use.

Another example of a TSI-funded startup is TraknProtect, a company that uses beacon-and-hub technology to enable hotels to track physical assets such as luggage carts. A beacon is placed on the asset, which sends a signal to a hub. The object's location is then transmitted to a server, which the hotel can access at any time.

To view TSI's portfolio of start-ups, visit

TSI's growth plans include raising another $6 million to invest in 70 more start-ups outside the initial 30 that it is currently funding, with a total investment goal of 100 start-ups in the next four years or so.

"At the core," Zito said, "we're helping drive innovation in the travel industry, which is severely lacking."


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