SMRT-backed start-up mobilityX and its transport app Zipster shut down

Zipster, which brought together multiple transport options on a single platform, was launched in 2019 but has not been functioning since at least late May. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

SINGAPORE - It was billed as Asia's first all-in-one transit application and the next big disruptor in the land transport sector here.

But less than two years after a splashy launch in September 2019 and amid ambitious plans to expand overseas, the plug has been pulled on Zipster and its SMRT-backed developer, mobilityX.

The Zipster app, which brought together multiple transport options, including MRT, buses, private-hire vehicles, shared bicycles and car-sharing services, on a single platform, has not been functioning since June this year or earlier.

The app has also been removed from the Apple App Store and Google's Play Store.

Mr Axel Tan, general manager of SMRT Ventures, the rail operator's corporate venture arm, told The Straits Times (ST) that the shareholders of mobilityX had decided to stop funding the start-up after reviewing its prospects and progress.

This was also taking into account a "tough business and regulatory environment", Mr Tan said.

He said registered users of the Zipster app were notified in advance before the app's services were discontinued.

He told ST: "The intellectual property developed will be retained and evaluated for future projects."

SMRT did not address queries about when the review of mobilityX's prospects took place, or when Zipster's services were discontinued.

As recently as January this year, mobilityX had partnered with ST Engineering and the Alliance for Action on Robotics on a three-month driverless bus trial at Singapore Science Park 2. Commuters could book rides on the bus using the Zipster app.

SMRT did not say how much in seed funding it had put into the four-year-old start-up, which was also backed by Toyota Tsusho, the general trading arm of carmaker Toyota.

It also did not address questions about mobilityX's finances, specifics about the business and regulatory challenges that the start-up was facing, and did not respond to questions about the leadership changes at the start-up.

Mr Colin Lim, mobilityX's founder and first chief executive, left the start-up in January last year.

His successor, Mr Lim Wee Meng, took over as chief executive in February last year and left the role in May this year.

ST understands mobilityX had difficulty generating revenue, leading to its closure.

Zipster was a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) app that offered a route planning function similar to that of apps such as Google Maps.

The app showed a comparison of prices and travel times across different transport modes, and allowed commuters to book services or pay their fares.

Commuters were also able to buy discount vouchers through Zipster's consolidated marketplace.

Mr Li Jianggan, chief executive of venture capital firm Momentum Works, said it was not surprising that SMRT decided to pull the plug on Zipster and mobilityX.

"I think mobilityX was doomed from the start," said Mr Li, who previously co-founded the Asia operations of the now defunct taxi-booking app Easy Taxi.

"MaaS works in Europe where cities are less dense and people have five to seven different transport modes. In dense Asian cities, it is a different story. Besides, most users here do not start their daily commute by using a journey planner," he added.

At its launch, Zipster had about 16,000 users, following a beta trial.

SMRT did not address ST's queries on how many users Zipster had when it was shut down.

Singapore University of Social Sciences transport economist Walter Theseira said transport services in other countries are often fragmented, and hence unattractive compared with owning a car.

The hype around MaaS is because in theory, it could integrate these services and other emerging and disruptive transport modes to create efficiency gains.

However, given Singapore's tightly knit public transport network, Associate Professor Theseira, said the problem that MaaS was supposed to solve does not exist here.

Hence, it was not clear what else Zipster had to offer, he said.

Former mobilityX employees who spoke to ST on condition of anonymity defended the MaaS concept.

"MaaS is still in its early stages in South-east Asia. I'm proud that we were able to push the needle," said one former employee. "I think we had all the right ingredients but unfortunately Covid-19 was a big factor. The operating environment became very tough," he added.

Plans to expand into Australia and Japan were also scuppered by Covid-19, he said.

Another former employee remains optimistic that MaaS will make a comeback.

He noted how ride-hailing firm Grab had tried to add a journey planner to its app in 2019 and later experimented with transport subscription packages.

He also cited ComfortDelGro's lifestyle and mobility app Zig as an example of how MaaS is still being experimented with.

"I'm not going to pretend that it isn't challenging. Everyone is trying different models. At the moment, there is no viable MaaS company. Nobody has found the secret sauce yet. But travel patterns are changing," he said, hopeful things will turn around.

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