Alex Israel ’06 wants to make it easier to get from point A to point B.
Alex Israel ’06 is passionate about transportation; the tagline of his new startup, Metropolis, is “The future of mobility.” Ask him his favorite way to travel, though, and he gives an unexpected answer.
“To not?” he says, laughing. “If I can avoid traveling, I want to avoid traveling. I want to be home with my family.”
The dream of staying home may seem a surprising one for somebody who’s built a career thinking about how people get from point A to point B. Yet, given that his main focus is parking—the part of travel that involves staying put—perhaps it’s the most fitting dream of all.
For now, it’s also an elusive one. Israel is in nearly perpetual motion these days. From his base in Venice, Calif., he’s traveling often to places like San Francisco and New York, because he’s getting ready to launch his newest startup—a company so new that it’s still operating in “stealth mode.” The only pieces of information that are public about Metropolis, for now, are its name, its “future of mobility” motto, and the job descriptions for the seven team members (such as senior engineer and director of product) he’s looking to hire as the company staffs up.
One more thing that’s public about Metropolis: If you take stock of all the Los Angeles-based tech startups that raised money in the first quarter of 2019—and considering the tech boom that’s utterly remaking LA’s west side, that’s no small number—Metropolis ranked near the top, raising $17.5 million in venture capital.
Israel, however, is hardly a long bet. In 2009, at the age of 25, he co-founded the parking company ParkMe with his friend Sam Friedman. ParkMe compiles information on garages, lots, and even some street parking options in 4,000 cities around the world, and it licenses that information to navigation companies like Google and Waze. That, in turn, helps drivers find parking where they’re going, especially in urban cores, where a well-situated spot can be maddeningly elusive, and it lets users reserve and pay for parking even before they leave their homes or offices.
Israel’s route to becoming a tech czar of parking wasn’t the most likely one. He didn’t study computer science or engineering, and he never learned to code. And he never went through so much as a childhood phase of being obsessed with cars, despite growing up in car-obsessed Los Angeles. At Puget Sound, he majored in business and economics, planning to become either an investment banker or a film producer.
He also wound up, somewhat by accident, living on the social-justice floor of University Hall (now Oppenheimer Hall), seeing at close range what it was like to invest in a vision of a better world. Israel chose his own approach to politics, running for president of the student body in his senior year. He won the election, and in his most lasting contribution to the campus, he worked with Vice President Ryan McAninch ’06 to create a mascot for the university—Grizz, a fuzzy bear in a maroon-and-white-checkered lumberjack shirt and a little maroon beanie. Though Puget Sound teams had long been called the Loggers, the school lacked a recognizable character to dance on the sidelines at sporting events and stir up school spirit. “For 10 years, different presidents had wanted to create mascots,” he recalls, “and nobody had been able to do it. We just said we were going to get it done.”
After graduation, Israel moved back home to LA and enrolled in film school at the American Film Institute, to study producing. He had made only one film at Puget Sound, a short horror movie called The Stacks, about a haunting at the campus library. “It was really bad,” he recalls. His co-filmmaker, classmate Travis Kell ’06, remains a close friend, and the two most recently worked together to co-found Metropolis.
Israel finished film school in 2009 and founded ParkMe the same year—while he was finishing his master’s thesis, in fact. “People always think it’s a big jump [from film] to being an entrepreneur,” he says. “But for me, there’s this natural link. In creating a film, you’re bringing something from abstraction to fruition, and when you’re starting a startup, you’re bringing something from abstraction to fruition. The difference is that with film, you get to stop after a year, and with entrepreneurship, you just have to keep at it.”
In 2015, ParkMe was acquired by a larger company, making Israel an official startup success story and raising the question of what he would do next. His focus on parking hadn’t been terribly premeditated—“I kind of fell into mobility and transportation,” he says—but through working with ParkMe, he had come to know the parking world intimately. He’d even served on the board of the National Parking Association, the national industry group.
What he started to see, through that work, was a parking industry ill equipped to deal with major changes to transportation that are on their way. Parking, he says, is “a relatively old-school industry that’s been unchanged, and historically hasn’t embraced tech for probably the last 80 years.” Yet transportation is in the midst of major shifts, from Amazon’s drone-powered deliveries to Uber’s vision of a driverless taxi fleet. Israel founded Metropolis to answer a question he didn’t see anybody else asking: “Who’s going to connect the archaic infrastructure of today with all these future modes of transportation?”
Now he’s getting going on the pitch. “How do you future-proof parking?” he asks, energized. “Where are all these autonomous vehicles going to go? Are they just going to drive around endlessly? I would argue not. They have to park somewhere, they have to be serviced, they have to be cleaned. There will need to be large-scale mobility hubs, both inside and outside the urban core. Somebody will have to control and facilitate that infrastructure, both from a digital perspective, as well as the underlying real estate.”
The details of precisely how Metropolis will tackle these questions will remain under wraps until the company leaves stealth mode, in early 2020. But the general principles that will drive it—and park it—are already hiding in plain sight. “Parking is a major component of the urban experience,” Israel says. “Yet we don’t talk about it. It’s dirty, underbelly, so unsexy. But it also is so not ready for the future.”
By Sara Marcus Photos by Sy Bean Published Feb. 13, 2020