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April 8, 2011

Omar Haroun '12 Wins NYC BigApps Awards

A smartphone app created by MBA/JD student Omar Haroun has received two 2011 NYC BigApps awards.


A smartphone app created by MBA/JD student Omar Haroun has received two 2011 NYC BigApps awards.

Haroun’s geolocation app, Sportaneous, helps users identify nearby pickup games of basketball, soccer, or any other sport users might be interested in playing. The app won both the Grand Prize Popular Choice Award and second place in the Best Overall Application category at the NYC BigApps awards ceremony March 31.

NYC BigApps is the city’s competition to reward developers of the most creative and impactful applications for delivering information from the NYC.gov DataMine to users. Sportaneous mined the publicly available data from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to provide users with a database of public sports facilities. Any kind of software application can be submitted to the BigApps contest, including creations for the web, personal computers, mobile handheld devices, SMS, or any platform widely available. As prizes, Sportaneous received $10,000, exposure for their work, and a meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Haroun, CEO and cofounder of Sportaneous, says the idea for the app started when he was working for a San Diego law firm last summer. An avid athlete and former college basketball player, Haroun noticed that his firm’s intramural teams frequently forfeited games because of players’ unpredictable schedules.

“In the meantime, I was also discovering all these sports facilities that weren’t being utilized,” Haroun said. “I think especially in densely populated areas like New York City, there are probably always at least 10 people around you who feel like doing the same thing as you at a given time, but it’s difficult to reach them. And I knew there had to be a better way to get people together for exercise.”

Hence, the idea for Sportaneous was born. When Haroun arrived on Columbia’s campus last fall, he began working with the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center for guidance in launching his new venture. The center’s Greenhouse Program helps Columbia Business School students prepare their businesses for investment by providing support and guidance throughout the semester, funding for prelaunch expenses, access to experts in key fields, and opportunities to present business concepts to professional investors.

“I had no experience writing business plans or making pitches to investors and potential partners,” he said. “The Lang Center offered tons of resources and valuable advice as I was building this company.”

Sportaneous launched in January in Haroun’s hometown of San Diego, where it quickly caught on among not only pickup game enthusiasts, but also personal trainers and yoga instructors looking for a new way to access potential clients. In the future, Haroun hopes to develop fee structures with fitness leaders so that Sportaneous generates profits from the arrangement.

For now, the app organizes an average of two games a day in San Diego and was recently made available in New York City. The company plans to reach other cities soon, starting with San Francisco and Philadelphia and expanding regionally from those locations, with sights on eventual global availability. Haroun and Aaron Royston, cofounder and president of Sportaneous, oversee a team of 16, along with two advisers.

The NYC BigApps awards were a welcome surprise to the entrepreneurs. “It was a little unexpected, but incredible,” Haroun said. “The awards are a real validation after so many months of hard work.”

But although their idea has led to a potentially lucrative business, for Haroun, using technology to bring people together is a reward in itself.

“Our mission isn’t necessarily to get rich from this but to give people an option to exercise together easily and in a fun way,” Haroun explained. “If this failed to make tons of money but succeeded in solving this problem, I think we’d all go home really happy.”