Every day, 26 million children in America ride the bus to school, almost all of them powered by diesel engines. We all love our children and want them to well educated, but take little notice when they are enveloped in a cloud of diesel fumes and fine particulates as they ride back and forth to school.
Ritu Narayan, co-founder of Zūm, has always believed there is a better way to transport young children. Her business began by finding new, more efficient ways to run what amounts to America’s largest public transportation system.
“We started out as a company for parents to directly schedule rides for their kids, yet we knew there was an opportunity to build on our success and expand our services to the entire system,” Naranya tells TechCrunch. “Today, we are taking a huge step forward in solving the systemic issues that have plagued school transportation. We’re modernizing the entire system because we believe schools, parents, kids and drivers all deserve better.”
In general, school transportation systems are one of the biggest expenses in the educational budget. Narayan thought if they were run more efficiently, school systems could save a significant amount of money — money that could be better spent on boosting educational outcomes rather than on transportation. Knowing how to sing “The wheels of the bus go round and round” is not a valuable skill to put on your resume later in life.
Zūm was awarded a $150 million contract to modernize the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) transportation service earlier this year and just announced it has closed of a $130 million Series D raise, bringing its total funding to more than $200 million. The company intends to use the funds to add 10,000 new electric vehicles to its platform with the goal of having 100% EVs in its fleet by 2025.
Having all those battery-powered vehicles in its fleet presents a unique opportunity for the company. It has recently partnered with AutoGrid, which provides energy management and distribution software, to transform its fleet into a giant virtual power plant capable of sending energy back to the grid.
The Series D funding was led by Softbank Vision Fund 2, with participation from existing investors including Sequoia, BMW i Ventures, and AngelPad. Zūm hopes to use the new capital infusion to expand into new markets and districts.
By correcting inefficiencies like circuitous routes and rigid schedules, Zūm has been able to save school districts like SFUSD $3 million a year on average. It has already worked with 4,000 schools throughout California, Seattle, Chicago, and Dallas, and is planning to expand its service to 12 states over the coming years, including Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Oregon, and New York, with an eye on Washington, D.C., as its next target.
“Using data and technology, we believe Zūm is modernizing school transportation by offering better services, efficiency and sustainability — while increasing safety for children,” Andrew Straub, investment director at Softbank Investment Advisers, said in a statement. “We are impressed with the immediate impact that Zūm has made for school districts who have deployed its service across their entire network of schools over the past year, including significant cost savings.”
“I have closely worked with the Zūm team over the last 3 years, and have observed first-hand the benefit of applying their technology to solve our complex day-to-day operations needs,” says Kim Raney, executive director of transportation for the Oakland Unified School District. There’s not enough money in the world to pay for an endorsement like that.