Alain Kornhauser, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, sat down with us to discuss his trailblazing work in navigation systems and to share his take on future trends in entrepreneurship at Princeton.
Professor Kornhauser is renowned for his entrepreneurial pursuits as founder of ALK Technologies, the global leader in routing, mapping, mileage and navigation technologies. His business ventures grew organically out of the research he was conducting at Princeton.
Kornhauser and his students initially set out to conduct a network analysis of the railroads and determine what would happen if competing railroads came together and created one large network. “We ended up building the first digital map database for railroads,” Kornhauser said. “In 1979, I decided to create a company with a former student to do the work that was required to take the database beyond ‘This is kind of nifty; we can show it in class’ to ‘Boy, this is a useful tool!’”
As research progressed, Kornhauser’s attention shifted to another untapped market. “Railroads really competed against truckers,” Kornhauser said. “We had to have more than just a railway network; we needed a highway network.” Like any successful startup, Kornhauser’s company pivoted and created a highway network, a product they called PC*MILER. “PC*MILER generates routes on a digital map database of highways,” Kornhauser said. “Now, thirty years later, PC*MILER is an industry standard used by nearly everybody in trucking.”
After building PC*MILER, the ALK team moved on to integrate all local streets into their database, with the help of a digital map generated by the US Census. “In 1996, we put out a product called Door-to-Door RoadTrips, the first nationwide routing system that allowed users to put in an address and compute the best way to go,” Kornhauser remarked.
Kornhauser’s startup kept up with the constantly improving navigation technology. In 1997, as ALK approached its twentieth anniversary, the company released CoPilot, the first nationwide turn-by-turn GPS-based navigation system on the market. “It was the first navigation system on the market,” Kornhauser said. “And it’s still the best one,” he quickly added.
Though an accomplished entrepreneur himself, Kornhauser believes that universities should prioritize education and basic research over business development. “To actually put a product out on market, and get somebody to really use it, takes a heck of a lot of work,” Kornhauser remarked. Kornhauser sees universities as being “in the business of getting things started.” He also emphasized the importance of student involvement in getting entrepreneurial endeavors off the ground.
Kornhauser believes the current state of entrepreneurship at Princeton is heading in the right direction. “I think the place where the University is now with respect to entrepreneurship is enormously better than it was even fifteen years ago,” he said. “We need to continue in the direction that we’ve been moving and continue getting more involved with entrepreneurship at Princeton. If it makes society better, the University should certainly participate in that.”