In the spring of 2014, Devon Tivona and Lianne Haug were seniors at the University of Colorado Boulder, poised to take their degrees in computer science and slide into cushy jobs at big-name tech companies waiting for them in Silicon Valley. But first, they decided to try something inspired—and a little bit crazy.
Their idea was Pana, a mobile app that combined the emerging capabilities of artificial intelligence with the perceptiveness and emotional insight of real humans that would improve customer experience in the realm of booking travel. “Everyone knew booking travel was awful,” Tivona said. “Everyone complained about it. But no one did anything about it. It felt like the user experience was broken.”
So before hopping on the work-a-day carousel, Tivona and Haug wanted to first take Pana on a quick ride aboard the entrepreneurial roller coaster. “We told ourselves, ‘Let’s take the summer and see if we can make something of this,’” Tivona said.
That spring, Tivona and Haug entered Pana in a pitch competition and won. The prize package included some startup cash and space in the newly opened Galvanize Boulder campus, where the two set to work refining their invention and business model.
Tivona says there were already more than a dozen apps and many more websites through which consumers could set-up travel itineraries. But it took forever to find the right flights and hotels, and whenever you needed to speak to a person, you’d be put on hold for 45 minutes before finally being connected to person halfway around the world who didn’t understand or empathize with your frustration.
“It wasn’t always this way,” Tivona said. “Twenty-five years ago, you’d call your travel agent, and they’d support you all the way. So how can we reinvent the 21st century travel agent?”
Enter Pana, which, in parts of Central and South America is Spanish slang for a good friend. When users tap this mobile amigo at any time, they are put through to a live agent. That human is sitting in front of a terminal window equipped with an AI that can instantaneously search for flights and accommodations, tailor arrangements to a returning client’s preferences, and respond to any questions, typically in less than a minute. The sentient machine doesn’t replace the person—it merely complements the personal customer service.
“It makes the agent hyper-efficient,” Tivona said. “It makes them a bit more like a superhero than your traditional travel agent.”
Tivona says their time cultivating Pana at the Galvanize Boulder campus was integral to getting the company off the ground.
“The space is open and full of entrepreneurs working on their passions. There are those who were at the same stage we were, going through the same challenges,” he said. “Those farther along that were already successful were useful as mentors—some even turned into angel investors.”
However, the most important thing that happened to Pana during its stay at Galvanize Boulder was meeting co-founder Sam Felsenthal, who was on campus working on developing his own business, Trunkit, a platform for fashion boutiques. “[Haug] and I had been a pretty successful two-person team,” Tivona said. “We started talking to [Felsenthal] about where to take the company. He started helping us one day a week. Then two days a week. Then three. He became integral. It just made natural sense to bring him aboard.”
Through other relationships forged at Galvanize, the Pana team also learned of and got accepted to the Techstars Boulder, a startup accelerator program. Over the course of 18 months, Pana grew from a two-person operation to a workforce of 15—outgrowing the Galvanize Boulder campus, which they left six months ago.
“It was time for Pana to get our own four walls,” Tivona said. “The company culture is solidified, and we’re now able to hire more people.”
Since then, Pana has continued to grow, even working with thousands of individual travelers and dozens of businesses. In May, they were featured in The New York Times. But Tivona says that Galvanize is still very near and dear to him and company.
“The new office is only four blocks away from Galvanize,” Tivona said. “We’re still very connected to that community. We attend events and continue to be partners.”
He also looks out for other fledgling businesses just getting setting into campus. He remembers what it was like.
“We were first-time entrepreneurs,” he said. “Without resources like Galvanize it would be even more difficult than it already is.”