Logo: University of Southern California

Magic Bus

Josh Bigelow started a multimillion-dollar company in his dorm room to help USC’s transit buses run on time.
By: Marc Ballon
October 28, 2014 —

In his freshman year, Josh Bigelow, B.S. ’06, took a job as a USC campus cruiser driver to make new friends. But he quickly found he was driven to do much more.

Bigelow, who at 13 taught himself to write computer code by reading a book, soon concluded the cruiser’s dispatch system needed an overhaul. It made no sense, he thought, for supervisors to call him and other drivers with names and addresses of people who needed rides when technology existed to streamline the process.

Nothing if not ambitious, Bigelow told his bosses that he could build a better system. Go ahead and try, they responded, somewhat incredulously.

Drawing on what he calls his “considerable amount of self-taught engineering experience,” along with knowledge acquired at the Stanford University computer science summer camps he attended in high school, Bigelow spent six weeks producing a new-and-improved system. Instead of providing drivers with passenger coordinates over the phone, dispatchers could now communicate that information by text, which showed up on newly installed mobile data terminals. Bigelow’s system also leveraged GPS technology to allow supervisors to remotely track vehicles and make changes to routes as needed.

Josh Bigelow testing out the system designed to make the USC transportation system more efficient

“We were able to haul twice as many kids, and our transportation time was cut in half,” said Brian D’Autremont, the former director of USC Transportation, adding that he arranged for Bigelow to attend USC tuition-free during his time consulting with the agency. “He was a tremendous asset and accomplished things we couldn’t get done any other way.”

Bigelow, who graduated from USC Viterbi with a dual degree in computer engineering and computer science, has leveraged that on-the-job training to build Syncromatics, a multimillion-dollar Los Angeles-based transportation company. The growing firm counts the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the University of South Florida and Merced County, Calif., among its 33 customers nationwide, with more than 1,000 buses in service.

“I like being able to move the needle in public transit and know that I’ve made a difference,” said Bigelow, 31. “Solving big problems makes me tick.”

Syncromatics’ system benefits both riders and transit agencies.

Passengers can access arrival times from their smartphones that tell them bus location and estimated arrival times. Bus operators receive real-time information about schedule performance, ideal spacing between buses and ridership numbers via infrared passenger counters. Dispatchers can also send texts to buses that voice annunciation software translates into verbal announcements.

Bus fleets that use Syncromatics’ technology have seen ridership increase because of better on-time performance. More people on buses means reduced fuel consumption and emissions.

Bigelow seemed destined to become a business builder. Growing up in Burlington, Vt., his parents owned an insurance company and passed on their passion for business to their son. “I grew up with entrepreneurship at my dinner table,” Bigelow said. “I always had it in my blood.”

He also revered the printed word. An avid reader, Bigelow consumed history, philosophy and computer science books, always challenging himself intellectually. The lessons of John Wooden resonated, especially the late great basketball coach’s “Pyramid of Success,” with its emphasis on poise, initiative, industriousness and self-control.

Bigelow took those qualities to USC. Although he learned much in the classroom, Bigelow said much of his education took place during his hands-on training at USC Transportation.

Based on the technology he developed in his dorm room at USC, Bigelow founded Syncromatics in 2006. (The company’s name is an abbreviation of “synchronized telematics.”) At the time the firm’s sole employee, he quickly secured a $100,000 contract with the University of California at San Diego. Within a year, he won the prestigious Lexus Transportation Prize in the California Clean Tech Open. Bigelow took home $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in in-kind services, including free office space and legal services.

He parlayed that newfound credibility into a meeting with LADOT’s chief of transit, who told him about the city’s problems with “bunching” of the downtown bus fleet, which made some vehicles arrive early and others late. Bigelow, sensing an opportunity, offered a free 15-bus pilot to try to address the problem.

Syncromatics’ vehicle tracking system did the trick, winning the company a lucrative contract. Syncromatics’ business with LADOT has only expanded since then, as has the suite of services it offers. Today, Syncromatics oversees 308 city buses, including the Hollywood and Downtown DASH lines. Bigelow expects sales to double in the next couple years.

“He has that entrepreneurial spirit, that grit and persistence, that X factor,” said Ashish Soni, the founding director of the USC Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation, or VSI2, who taught Bigelow at USC and serves as an informal adviser.

Bigelow is proud of his and Syncromatics’ successes. Now the company’s chief strategy officer, he readily shares credit with his team. More than anything, though, Bigelow says he is grateful to USC Viterbi.

“Viterbi gave me the training of a professional engineer, the business savvy of a USC graduate, the on-the-job experience of the transit industry, and a vital network of friends and colleagues that has served in more ways than I could list, both personally and professionally,” he said.