Jonas Kavaliauskas

In 2015, Uber launched UberKittens, an initiative that allowed customers to order an Uber and pay $30 for 15 minutes of snuggling, in an effort to expand its suite of on-demand services.

Now other companies are catching on to this trend, including a Yale-based company called Odyssey that has launched an app that creator Jonas Kavaliauskas ’20 called “Uber for Tour Guides.”

After informally linking traveling friends with local guides, Kavaliauskas decided to create a formal platform for this service in 2017. He enrolled in CS50, an introductory computer science course, to build a preliminary user interface last fall. Since then, he has recruited Peter Vanderslice ’21 and Linas Nasvytis, a student at Columbia and Sciences Po, to form Odyssey’s core team as it prepares the app for wide release next spring.

“When you travel, you don’t have to go around the city in a double-decker bus, all sweaty, with an overpriced tour guide. You can just come with me and I’ll show you the coolest places in my neighborhood,” Kavaliauskas said. “People take advantage of cheap flights that are usually last-minute deals. They find themselves in these places without any plans, thinking, what do I do? Odyssey provides this on-the-go availability.”

In a not-yet-released promotional video shared with the News, Odyssey users are shown filling out a profile describing their interests, and prospective tour guides can be seen entering their areas of expertise and desired levels of compensation into the app. Users are shown accessing a map of available tour guides with whom they can connect.

Odyssey’s target audience is students and young professionals, especially those traveling to Europe, Kavaliauskas said. He added that Odyssey’s “personalized approach” to travel fulfills an unmet need in the market.

“We say that after you a travel quite a bit, all the cities and monuments get similar, old and boring,” Kavaliauskas said. “It’s the people who are different in every city and whose stories are different, and that makes traveling beautiful.”

To earn credibility among its target user base, Kavaliauskas said the company will avoid an aggressive expansion that depletes company values.

“If we throw this out in the market now, people will use it, but most will think it’s a cheap knockoff of CouchSurfing,” Kavaliauskas said. “Our success will be dependent upon giving the first people on there the most amazing experience and then scaling that.”

To build and test Odyssey, Kavaliauskas entered his team in the Accelerator program at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, an intensive semesterlong program that provides Yale businesses with mentorship and structure.

“Jonas is an example of a Yale student with strong entrepreneurial drive,” Tsai CITY Executive Director Andrew McLaughlin said. “You don’t have to be the best coder, best designer, what you really have to be is a strong generalist who can think in an interdisciplinary way.”

Vanderslice joined Odyssey this summer after taking a yearlong leave of absence from Yale to study and work in China through the Light Fellowship. While he was away, he also worked at Didi, a Chinese ride-sharing app.

When he was shopping courses this summer, Vanderslice saw Jonas presenting Odyssey in the promotional video for CS50 and emailed him to express interest in collaborating.

In preparation for the app’s launch next spring, the Odyssey team is looking to bring a chief technology officer on board.

“Once it’s released, Odyssey applies anywhere people are part of a community, genuinely passionate about where they are from and want to show it to others,” Vanderslice said.

Tsai CITY is located at 254 Elm St.

Samuel Turner | samuel.turner@yale.edu