Serko Secures U.S. Patent For NFC-Enabled Travel Expense Automation

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week granted to New Zealand-based Serko a patent for a travel expense system that uses mobile near-field communication automatically to carry out financial transactions, communicate with corporate enterprise resource planning systems and handle "associated expense management reconciliation," according to Serko. The firm claims 6,000 corporate and government agency clients in the Asia/Pacific region and this week listed on New Zealand's NZX Main Board equities exchange.

The process, as envisioned in patent filings, begins with a traveler carrying an NFC-enabled mobile device, on which an application has stored the traveler's itinerary and expected expenditures. As the traveler incurs expenses, the technology facilitates the financial transaction, at times prompting the traveler to authorize payment.

The technology also would update the ERP corporate system "in tracking the progress of the traveler and, by reporting back payments, recording the expenses of the traveler." Tracking can be "estimated from location services using the location of found Wi-Fi network names or phone cell locations or from a device GPS and, failing this, by the traveler manually activating an itinerary event."

In one use case cited in USPTO documentation, the traveler's device passing near "a checkout NFC device at a hotel at or near the time specified in the itinerary for checkout will be interpreted as an itinerary event for checkout, and retrieves from the checkout facility via NFC the expenditure incurred at the hotel." The traveler then can authorize payment, which later is reported to the corporate ERP system in the form of an itemized receipt.

A similar example was provided in the case of taxis equipped with NFC capabilities.

Serko first filed the patent application in 2011. USPTO documentation noted that "various efforts have been made to resolve some of the problems associated with recording expenses for a remote traveler. Such systems leave unanswered the question as to how the system ensures that the costs recorded are correct and how to reduce to a minimum the traveler's interaction with payment systems during travel. The present invention provides a solution to this and other problems."

The application may prompt the user to identify an expense as business-related or personal, which can be presented in different manners. It also may flag expenses that exceed estimates entered during the creation of the itinerary.

NuTravel president and CEO Carmine Carpanzano told The Beat that his company, via the Mundi Global Alliance, will be granted rights by Serko to adapt the patented technology for use in the United States, along with a mobile app that Serko in its annual report, also issued this week, indicated "is scheduled for pilot release shortly."

Strong Growth And An IPO

Serko this week began trading shares on New Zealand's NZX under the ticker symbol SKO. According to its annual report, new capital raised by the initial public offering amounted to A$17 million (US$16 million).

"The capital raised will be primarily applied to fund growth and speed up Serko's rollout of cloud-based software to new customers and markets," according to a statement by chairman Simon Botherway. "In particular, Serko will be significantly expanding its team and putting more resources into developing new products and features."

For its fiscal year ending March 31, 2014, Serko reported a 39 percent jump in revenue versus the prior year__its highest-ever annual growth, partly due to the acquisition of expense management firm Incharge. It reported a net loss of A$1.7 million (US$1.6 million), "a result of the company needing to fund its operations, while experiencing rapid growth."

Serko claims reseller agreements with American Express Business Travel, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Corporate Travel Management, Flight Centre, Globetrotter Corporate Travel, Hogg Robinson Group and several others.