Henry Ford’s great-grandson likes trains and planes, not just automobiles

In the 1960s, the Ford Motor Co came up with that catchy slogan to boost sales: “Ford has a better idea.”

So it’s somewhat ironic that Fontinalis Partners, the Detroit-based VC firm that Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, helped launch in 2009, isn’t focused directly on the private auto.

Ford, executive chairman at his namesake car company, and his fellow partners at Fontinalis, are more interested in what’s happening within the broader spectrum of emerging IT for trains and planes, as well as some aspects of the automobile, such as public parking.

Chris Thomas, Fontinalis
Chris Thomas, founder, Fontinalis

As Chris Thomas, founder and partner at the firm, explains, “Core auto IT is not a focus of our fund. It’s much broader.”

“We’re more interested in mobility around the globe, the movement of goods, services and people using technology,” he said.

Thomas said the firm has made investments in about two dozen companies over the past seven years, including the May 2015 participation in a $150 million round in ride sharing service Lyft.

Fontinalis, which is raising a $125 million second fund, according to a recent regulatory document, invests at all stages, and in varying amounts, depending on the specifics of the deal. Thomas said the firm likes to lead, but will also co-lead.

Thomas pointed to a couple of investments announced in December 2015 that represents the firm’s broader interests in transportation technologies.

One was the firm’s participation in a $3.5 million angel round in Service, a startup that has developed a smartphone app that allows businesses to better manage contractors and tradesmen in the field, such as electricians and plumbers. The company is located in Detroit, and opening an office in Columbus, Ohio.

The other deal was the firm’s participation in a $12 million private equity round in Masabi, a company with offices in Boston and London and which is developing paperless ticketing and fare collection systems using mobile devices. Customers, 22 at last count, include for transit agencies in Boston and New York, as well as Athens, London and Paris.

“The second major expense in any household is transportation,” said Thomas, who noted that he and his partners “look for systemic approaches to mobility in which you offer the same reliability but at less costs.”

“We’re looking at ways to transform how people move about and how people are utilizing their wallet when they are on the move,” he said.

The firm had a successful exit in September when Kirkland, Wash.-based INRIX acquired Santa Monica, Calif.-based ParkMe for an undisclosed amount.

ParkMe is developing mobile apps to help motorists find, reserve and pay for parking when on the move.

Fontinalis and early-stage San Francisco firm IDG Ventures USA led a $7.4 million Series A in ParkMe in October 2012. —Tom York

Photo illustration of Model T from Shutterstock.