Venture Capital

Sapphire Ventures bets big on esports and entertainment with new $115M fund

Posted by | Adidas, Entertainment, fitbit, Gaming, major league baseball, new york jets, Paytm, San Jose Sharks, Sapphire Ventures, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Sports, Startups, TC, tom brady, Venture Capital | No Comments

Sapphire Ventures, formerly the corporate venture capital arm of SAP, has lassoed $115 million from new limited partners (LPs) to invest at the intersection of tech, sports, media and entertainment.

A majority of the LPs for the new fund, called Sapphire Sport, have ties to the sports industry, from City Football Group, which owns English Premier League team Manchester City, to Adidas, the owners of the Indiana Pacers, New York Jets, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning, among others.

The firm plans to do five to six investments per year, sized between $3 million and $7 million. So far, they’ve deployed capital to five startups: at-home fitness system Tonal, live soccer streaming platform mycujoo, digital sports network Overtime, ticketing and events platform Fevo and gaming studio Phoenix Labs. Sapphire began backing tech startups in 2008; in 2016, the firm closed on $1 billion for its third flagship venture fund.

Sapphire managing director and co-founder Doug Higgins is leading the effort alongside newly tapped partner Michael Spirito, who joined from 21st Century Fox, where he focused on business development and digital media for the Fox Sports-owned Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network, in September.

Higgins was an investment manager at Intel Capital for four years prior to co-launching Sapphire. Throughout his career, he’s managed the firm’s investments in LinkedIn, DocuSign, Square and more.

“We invest in anything that tech is disrupting,” Higgins told TechCrunch. “We were early investors in Fitbit, so we saw the beginning of digital fitness and how tech can impact the lives of anyone, not just high-performance athletes … We are also investors in Square, TicketFly and Paytm and what we’ve been seeing — the dream as a VC — is these massive markets in the sports, media and digital health world that are getting disrupted by tech.”

Sapphire is betting its traditional and well-established venture platform, coupled with the expertise of leading sports entities on board as LPs, will give it a competitive edge as it targets some of the best emerging sports tech companies.

“We see a lot of FOMO happening in this world, where everyone wants to have a play, but to make the best investment you need to have the widest perspective,” Higgins said. “So if you’re a team owner of a particular football team you are going to make better decisions if you are able to share perspectives with owners of other teams.”

“The best entrepreneurs, the ones we all want to invest in, there’s not a draft, they have to select you,” he added.

Investment in esports and gaming has skyrocketed, surpassing a total of $2.5 billion in VC funding in 2018. According to PitchBook, a handful of startups have already raised a total of $65 million in VC backing this year, including a $10.8 million financing for ReKTGlobal, a provider of esports infrastructure services.

“You can’t ignore the numbers on esports,” Higgins added. “They just continue to grow massively and people who have teenage kids, like myself, [those kids] want to grow up to be the next ninja, not the next Tom Brady .”

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Anchorage emerges with $17M from a16z for ‘omnimetric’ crypto security

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, Chris Dixon, cryptocurrency, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, Recent Funding, Security, Startups, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

I’m not allowed to tell you exactly how Anchorage keeps rich institutions from being robbed of their cryptocurrency, but the off-the-record demo was damn impressive. Judging by the $17 million Series A this security startup raised last year led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by Khosla Ventures, #Angels, Max Levchin, Elad Gil, Mark McCombe of Blackrock and AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, I’m not the only one who thinks so. In fact, crypto funds like Andreessen’s a16z crypto, Paradigm and Electric Capital are already using it.

They’re trusting in the guys who engineered Square’s first encrypted card reader and Docker’s security protocols. “It’s less about us choosing this space and more about this space choosing us. If you look at our backgrounds and you look at the problem, it’s like the universe handed us on a silver platter the Venn diagram of our skill set,” co-founder Diogo Monica tells me.

Today, Anchorage is coming out of stealth and launching its cryptocurrency custody service to the public. Anchorage holds and safeguards crypto assets for institutions like hedge funds and venture firms, and only allows transactions verified by an array of biometrics, behavioral analysis and human reviewers. And because it doesn’t use “buried in the backyard” cold storage, asset holders can actually earn rewards and advantages for participating in coin-holder votes without fear of getting their Bitcoin, Ethereum or other coins stolen.

The result is a crypto custody service that could finally lure big-time commercial banks, endowments, pensions, mutual funds and hedgies into the blockchain world. Whether they seek short-term gains off of crypto volatility or want to HODL long-term while participating in coin governance, Anchorage promises to protect them.

Evolving past “pirate security”

Anchorage’s story starts eight years ago when Monica and his co-founder Nathan McCauley met after joining Square the same week. Monica had been getting a PhD in distributed systems while McCauley designed anti-reverse engineering tech to keep U.S. military data from being extracted from abandoned tanks or jets. After four years of building systems that would eventually move more than $80 billion per year in credit card transactions, they packaged themselves as a “pre-product acqui-hire” Monica tells me, and they were snapped up by Docker.

As their reputation grew from work and conference keynotes, cryptocurrency funds started reaching out for help with custody of their private keys. One had lost a passphrase and the $1 million in currency it was protecting in a display of jaw-dropping ignorance. The pair realized there were no true standards in crypto custody, so they got to work on Anchorage.

“You look at the status quo and it was and still is cold storage. It’s the same technology used by pirates in the 1700s,” Monica explains. “You bury your crypto in a treasure chest and then you make a treasure map of where those gold coins are,” except with USB keys, security deposit boxes and checklists. “We started calling it Pirate Custody.” Anchorage set out to develop something better — a replacement for usernames and passwords or even phone numbers and two-factor authentication that could be misplaced or hijacked.

This led them to Andreessen Horowitz partner and a16z crypto leader Chris Dixon, who’s now on their board. “We’ve been buying crypto assets running back to Bitcoin for years now here at a16z crypto. [Once you’re holding crypto,] it’s hard to do it in a way that’s secure, regulatory compliant, and lets you access it. We felt this pain point directly.”

Andreessen Horowitz partner and Anchorage board member Chris Dixon

It’s at this point in the conversation when Monica and McCauley give me their off-the-record demo. While there are no screenshots to share, the enterprise security suite they’ve built has the polish of a consumer app like Robinhood. What I can say is that Anchorage works with clients to whitelist employees’ devices. It then uses multiple types of biometric signals and behavioral analytics about the person and device trying to log in to verify their identity.

But even once they have access, Anchorage is built around quorum-based approvals. Withdrawals, other transactions and even changing employee permissions requires approval from multiple users inside the client company. They could set up Anchorage so it requires five of seven executives’ approval to pull out assets. And finally, outlier detection algorithms and a human review the transaction to make sure it looks legit. A hacker or rogue employee can’t steal the funds even if they’re logged in because they need consensus of approval.

That kind of assurance means institutional investors can confidently start to invest in crypto assets. That swell of capital could help replace the retreating consumer investors who’ve fled the market this year, leading to massive price drops. The liquidity provided by these asset managers could keep the whole blockchain industry moving. “Institutional investing has had centuries to build up a set of market infrastructure. Custody was something that for other asset classes was solved hundreds of years ago, so it’s just now catching up [for crypto],” says McCauley. “We’re creating a bigger market in and of itself,” Monica adds.

With Anchorage steadfastly handling custody, the risk these co-founders admit worries them lies in the smart contracts that govern the cryptocurrencies themselves. “We need to be extremely wide in our level of support and extremely deep because each blockchain has details of implementation. This is inherently a very difficult problem,” McCauley explains. It doesn’t matter if the coins are safe in Anchorage’s custody if a janky smart contract can botch their transfer.

There are plenty of startups vying to offer crypto custody, ranging from Bitgo and Ledger to well-known names like Coinbase and Gemini. Yet Anchorage offers a rare combination of institutional-since-day-one security rigor with the ability to participate in votes and governance of crypto assets that’s impossible if they’re in cold storage. Down the line, Anchorage hints that it might serve clients recommendations for how to vote to maximize their yield and preserve the sanctity of their coin.

They’ll have crypto investment legend Chris Dixon on their board to guide them. “What you’ll see is in the same way that institutional investors want to buy stock in Facebook and Google and Netflix, they’ll want to buy the equivalent in the world 10 years from now and do that safely,” Dixon tells me. “Anchorage will be that layer for them.”

But why do the Anchorage founders care so much about the problem? McCauley concludes that, “When we look at what’s potentially possible with crypto, there a fundamentally more accessible economy. We view ourselves as a key component of bringing that future forward.”

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Daily Crunch: How the government shutdown is damaging cybersecurity and future IPOs

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, Finance, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Government, hardware, payments, Policy, Startups, Venture Capital | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. How Trump’s government shutdown is harming cyber and national security
The government has been shut down for nearly three weeks, and there’s no end in sight. While most of the core government departments — State, Treasury, Justice and Defense — are still operational, others like Homeland Security, which takes the bulk of the government’s cybersecurity responsibilities, are suffering the most.

2. With SEC workers offline, the government shutdown could screw IPO-ready companies
The SEC has been shut down since December 27 and only has 285 of its 4,436 employees on the clock for emergency situations. While tech’s most buzz-worthy unicorns like Uber and Lyft won’t suffer too much from the shutdown, smaller businesses, particularly those in need of an infusion of capital to continue operating, will bear the brunt of any IPO delays.

3. The state of seed 

In 2018, seed activity as a percentage of all deals shrank from 31 percent to 25 percent — a decade low — while the share and size of late-stage deals swelled to record highs.

4. Banking startup N26 raises $300 million at $2.7 billion valuation

N26 is building a retail bank from scratch. The company prides itself on the speed and simplicity of setting up an account and managing assets. In the past year, N26’s valuation has exploded as its user base has tripled, with nearly a third of customers paying for a premium account.

5. E-scooter startup Bird is raising another $300M 

Bird is reportedly nearing a deal to extend its Series C round with a $300 million infusion led by Fidelity. The funding, however, comes at a time when scooter companies are losing steam and struggling to prove that its product is the clear solution to last-mile transportation.

6. AWS gives open source the middle finger 

It’s no secret that AWS has long been accused of taking the best open-source projects and re-using and re-branding them without always giving back to those communities.

7. The Galaxy S10 is coming on February 20 

Looks like Samsung is giving Mobile World Congress the cold shoulder and has decided to announce its latest flagship phone a week earlier in San Francisco.

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Daily Crunch: Nvidia breaks with tradition at CES 2019

Posted by | augmented reality, Enterprise, Europe, Finance, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Startups, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Nvidia launches the $349 GeForce RTX 2060

Nvidia broke with tradition and put a new focus on gaming at CES. Last night the company unveiled the RTX 2060, a $349 low-end version of its new Turing-based desktop graphics cards. The RTX 2060 will be available on Jan. 15.

2. Elon Musk’s vision of spaceflight is gorgeous 

This spring SapceX intends to launch the next phase in its space exploration plans. The newly named Starship rocket, previously known as the BFR, intends to to be rocket to rule them all. And it’s going to look good doing it.

3. Apple’s increasingly tricky international trade-offs

Far from its troubles in emerging markets like China, Apple is starting to face backlash from a European population that’s crying foul over the company’s perceived hypocrisy on data privacy. It’s become clear that Apple’s biggest success is now its biggest challenge in Europe.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

4. Marc Andreessen: audio will be “titanically important” and VR will be “1,000” times bigger than AR

In a recently recorded podcast Marc Andreesen gave some predictions on the future of the tech industry. Surprisingly, the all-start investor is continuing his support of the shaky VR industry saying that expanding the immersive world will require us to remove the head-mounted displays we’ve become accustomed to.

5. Fitness marketplace ClassPass acquires competitor GuavaPass

ClassPass, the five-year-old fitness marketplace, is in the midst of an expansion sprint. The company announced yesterday that it’s acquiring one it competitors, GuavaPass, for an undisclosed amount to expand into Asia. The move now puts ClassPass in more than 80 markets across the 11 countries, with plans to expand to 50 new cities in 2019.

6. Apple shows off new smart home products from HomeKit partners

Apple gave a snapshot of its future smart home ecosystem at CES. Looks like an array of smart light switches, door cameras, electrical outlets and more are on the way and will be configurable through the Home app and Siri.

7. Parcel Guard’s smart mailbox protects your packages from porch thieves

Danby is showing off its newly launched smart mailbox called Parcel Guard at CES, which allows deliveries to be left securely at customers’ doorsteps. Turns out you won’t need a farting glitter bomb to protect your packages after all. The Parcel Guard starts at $399 and pre-orders are will be available this week.

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Zynga to acquire Small Giant Games, the maker of Empires & Puzzles, for $700M

Posted by | analyst, ceo, computing, Creandum, eqt ventures, farmville, Frank Gibeau, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, helsinki, player, profounders, Startups, Venture Capital, Zynga | No Comments

Social game developer Zynga has entered into an agreement to acquire Small Giant Games, the startup behind the popular mobile game Empires & Puzzles, in a deal expected to total $700 million.

Zynga, which has tumbled since its 2011 Nasdaq initial public offering, will initially acquire 80 percent of Small Giant Games for $560 million, composed of $330 million in cash and $230 million of unregistered Zynga common stock. Zynga will fund part of the transaction with a $200 million credit facility.

“We’ve been impressed by the quality and momentum of Empires & Puzzles as we add another Forever Franchise into Zynga’s portfolio,” Zynga chief executive officer Frank Gibeau said in a statement. “Small Giant has created an innovative game that delivers a unique player experience that engages over the long term.”

The deal is expected to close on January 1. Zynga will purchase the remaining 20 percent of Small Giant over the next three years “at valuations based on specified profitability goals.”

Helsinki-based Small Giant Games had raised $52 million in equity funding from EQT Ventures, Creandum, Spintop Ventures, Profounders and others since it was founded in 2013. The company reported $33 million of revenue for Empires & Puzzles, its most popular game, 10 months after its launch in 2017. Small Giant, which is also behind Alliance Wars and Season 2: Atlantis, says they exceeded 2017’s revenue just four months into 2018.

“Our studio was founded on the idea that small, skillful teams can accomplish giant things, and I am confident that partnering with Zynga is the right next step in our evolution,” Small Giant CEO Timo Soininen said in a statement. “We will now operate as a separate studio within Zynga, maintaining our identity, culture and creative independence. By leveraging the expertise and support from the wider Zynga team, we will amplify the reach of Empires & Puzzles and the new games in our development pipeline.”

Zynga, founded in 2007, is the developer of FarmVille, Zynga Poker, Words with Friends and several other mobile games. The company reported revenues of $248.88 million for the quarter ended September 2018, failing to meet analyst estimates.

Zynga expects to bring in $243 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2018.

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K Health raises $25M for its AI-powered primary care platform

Posted by | 14w, a.i., AI, Apps, artificial intelligence, Bessemer Venture Partners, boxgroup, Comcast Ventures, Community, consumer, Crowdfunding, doctors, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, health app, health apps, healthcare, K Health, lerer hippeau, machine learning, Mangrove Capital Partners, Mobile, primary ventures, Recent Funding, series B, Series B funding, Startups, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

K Health, the startup providing consumers with an AI-powered primary care platform, has raised $25 million in Series B funding. The round was led by 14W, Comcast Ventures and Mangrove Capital Partners, with participation from Lerer HippeauBoxGroup and Max Ventures — all previous investors from the company’s seed or Series A rounds. Other previous investors include Primary Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Co-founded and led by former Vroom CEO and Wix co-CEO Allon Bloch, K Health (previously Kang Health) looks to equip consumers with a free and easy-to-use application that can provide accurate, personalized, data-driven information about their symptoms and health.

“When your child says their head hurts, you can play doctor for the first two questions or so — where does it hurt? How does it hurt?” Bloch explained in a conversation with TechCrunch. “Then it gets complex really quickly. Are they nauseous or vomiting? Did anything unusual happen? Did you come back from a trip somewhere? Doctors then use differential diagnosis to prove that it’s a tension headache versus other things by ruling out a whole list of chronic or unusual conditions based on their deep knowledge sets.”

K Health’s platform, which currently focuses on primary care, effectively looks to perform a simulation and data-driven version of the differential diagnosis process. On the company’s free mobile app, users spend three-to-four minutes answering an average of 21 questions about their background and the symptoms they’re experiencing.

Using a data set of two billion historical health events over the past 20 years — compiled from doctors’ notes, lab results, hospitalizations, drug statistics and outcome data — K Health is able to compare users to those with similar symptoms and medical histories before zeroing in on a diagnosis. 

With its expansive comparative approach, the platform hopes to offer vastly more thorough, precise and user-specific diagnostic information relative to existing consumer alternatives, like WebMD or, what Bloch calls “Dr. Google,” which often produce broad, downright frightening and inaccurate diagnoses. 

Ease and efficiency for both consumers and physicians

Users are able to see cases and diagnoses that had symptoms similar to their own, with K Health notifying users with serious conditions when to consider seeking immediate care. (K Health Press Image / K Health / https://www.khealth.ai)

In addition to pure peace of mind, the utility provided to consumers is clear. With more accurate at-home diagnostic information, users are able to make better preventative health decisions, avoid costly and unnecessary trips to in-person care centers or appointments with telehealth providers and engage in constructive conversations with physicians when they do opt for in-person consultations.

K Health isn’t looking to replace doctors, and, in fact, believes its platform can unlock tremendous value for physicians and the broader healthcare system by enabling better resource allocation. 

Without access to quality, personalized medical information at home, many defer to in-person doctor visits even when it may not be necessary. And with around one primary care physician per 1,000 people in the U.S., primary care practitioners are subsequently faced with an overwhelming number of patients and are unable to focus on more complex cases that may require more time and resources. The high volume of patients also forces physicians to allocate budgets for support staff to help interact with patients, collect initial background information and perform less-demanding tasks.

K Health believes that by providing an accurate alternative for those with lighter or more trivial symptoms, it can help lower unnecessary in-person visits, reduce costs for practices and allow physicians to focus on complicated, rare or resource-intensive cases, where their expertise can be most useful and where brute machine processing power is less valuable.

The startup is looking to enhance the platform’s symbiotic patient-doctor benefits further in early-2019, when it plans to launch in-app capabilities that allow users to share their AI-driven health conversations directly with physicians, hopefully reducing time spent on information gathering and enabling more-informed treatment.

With K Health’s AI and machine learning capabilities, the platform also gets smarter with every conversation as it captures more outcomes, hopefully enriching the system and becoming more valuable to all parties over time. Initial results seem promising, with K Health currently boasting around 500,000 users, most having joined since this past July.

Using access and affordability to improve global health outcomes

With the latest round, the company has raised a total of $37.5 million since its late-2016 founding. K Health plans to use the capital to ramp up marketing efforts, further refine its product and technology and perform additional research to identify methods for earlier detection and areas outside of primary care where the platform may be valuable.

Longer term, the platform has much broader aspirations of driving better health outcomes, normalizing better preventative health behavior and creating more efficient and affordable global healthcare systems.

The high costs of the American healthcare system and the impacts they have on health behavior has been well-documented. With heavy co-pays, premiums and treatment cost, many avoid primary care altogether or opt for more reactionary treatment, leading to worse health outcomes overall.

Issues seen in the American healthcare system are also observable in many emerging market countries with less medical infrastructure. According to the World Health Organization, the international standard for the number of citizens per primary care physician is one for every 1,500 to 2,000 people, with some countries facing much steeper gaps — such as China, where there is only one primary care doctor for every 6,666.

The startup hopes it can help limit the immense costs associated with emerging countries educating millions of doctors for eight-to-10 years and help provide more efficient and accessible healthcare systems much more quickly.

By reducing primary care costs for consumers and operating costs for medical practices, while creating a more convenient diagnostic experience, K Health believes it can improve access to information, ultimately driving earlier detection and better health outcomes for consumers everywhere.

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Blockchain gaming gets a boost with Mythical Games’ $16M Series A

Posted by | blockchain, funding, Gaming, niantic, Seismic Games, Startups, Venture Capital, Yahoo | No Comments

Fortnite, the free multi-player survival game, has earned an astonishing $1 billion from in-game virtual purchases alone. Now, others in the gaming industry are experimenting with how they too can capitalize on new trends in gaming.

Mythical Games, a startup out of stealth today with $16 million in Series A funding, is embracing a future in gaming where user-generated content and intimate ties between players, content creators, brands and developers is the norm. Mythical is using its infusion of venture capital to develop a line of PC, mobile and console games on the EOSIO blockchain, which will also be open to developers to build games with “player-owned economies.”

The company says an announcement regarding its initial lineup of games is on the way.

Mythical is led by a group of gaming industry veterans. Its chief executive officer is John Linden, a former studio head at Activision and president of the Niantic-acquired Seismic Games. The rest of its C-suite includes chief compliance officer Jamie Jackson, another former studio head at Activision; chief product officer Stephan Cunningham, a former director of product management at Yahoo; and head of blockchain Rudy Kock, a former senior producer at Blizzard — the Activision subsidiary known for World of Warcraft. Together, the team has worked on games including Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Marvel Strike Force and Skylanders.

Galaxy Digital’s EOS VC Fund has led the round for Mythical. The $325 million fund, launched earlier this year, is focused on expanding the EOSIO ecosystem via strategic investments in startups building on EOSIO blockchain software. Javelin Venture Partners, Divergence Digital Currency, cryptocurrency exchange OKCoin and others also participated in the round.

It’s no surprise investors are getting excited about the booming gaming business given the success of Epic Games, Twitch, Discord and others in the space.

Epic Games raised a $1.25 billion round late last month thanks to the cultural phenomenon that its game, Fortnite, has become. KKR, Iconiq Capital, Smash Ventures,Vulcan Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners and others participated in that round. Discord, a chat application for gamers, raised a $50 million financing in April at a $1.65 billion valuation from Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, IVP, Spark Capital and Tencent. And Dapper Labs, best known for the blockchain-based game CryptoKitties, even raised a VC round this year — a $15 million financing led by Venrock, with participation from GV and Samsung NEXT.

In total, VCs have invested $1.8 billion in gaming startups this year, per PitchBook.

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TC Sessions: AR/VR surveys an industry in transition

Posted by | augmented reality, Developer, Entertainment, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Media, Startups, TC, tc sessions, TC Sessions: AR/VR 2018, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

Industry vets and students alike crammed into UCLA’s historic Royce Hall last week for TC Sessions: AR/VR, our one-day event on the fast-moving (and hype-plagued) industry and the people in it. Disney, Snap, Oculus and more stopped by to chat and show off their latest; if you didn’t happen to be in LA that day, read on and find out what we learned — and follow the links to watch the interviews and panels yourself.

To kick off the day we had Jon Snoddy from Walt Disney Imagineering. As you can imagine, this is a company deeply invested in “experiences.” But he warned that VR and AR storytelling isn’t ready for prime time: “I don’t feel like we’re there yet. We know it’s extraordinary, we know it’s really interesting, but it’s not yet speaking to us deeply the way it will.”

Next came Snap’s Eitan Pilipski. Snapchat wants to leave augmented reality creativity up to the creators rather than prescribing what they should build. AR headsets people want to wear in real life might take years to arrive, but nevertheless Snap confirmed that it’s prototyping new AI-powered face filters and VR experiences in the meantime.

I was onstage next with a collection of startups which, while very different from each other, collectively embody a willingness to pursue alternative display methods — holography and projection — as businesses. Ashley Crowder from VNTANA and Shawn Frayne from Looking Glass explained how they essentially built the technology they saw demand for: holographic display tech that makes 3D visualization simple and real. And Lightform’s Brett Jones talked about embracing and extending the real world and creating shared experiences rather than isolated ones.

Frayne’s holographic desktop display was there in the lobby, I should add, and very impressive it was. People were crowding three or four deep to try to understand how the giant block of acrylic could hold 3D characters and landscapes.

Maureen Fan from BaoBab Studios touched on the importance of conserving cash for entertainment-focused virtual reality companies. Previewing her new film, Crow, Fan noted that new modes of storytelling need to be explored for the medium, such as the creative merging of gaming and cinematic experiences.

Up next was a large panel of investors: Niko Bonatsos (General Catalyst), Jacob Mullins (Shasta Ventures), Catherine Ulrich (FirstMark Capital) and Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia). The consensus of this lively discussion was that (as Fan noted earlier) this is a time for startups to go lean. Competition has been thinned out by companies burning VC cash and a bootstrapped, efficient company stands out from the crowd.

Oculus is getting serious about non-gaming experiences in virtual reality. In our chat with Oculus Executive Producer Yelena Rachitsky, we heard more details about how the company is looking to new hardware to deepen the interactions users can have in VR and that new hardware like the Oculus Quest will allow users to go far beyond the capabilities of 360-degree VR video.

Of course if Oculus is around, its parent company can’t be far away. Facebook’s Ficus Kirkpatrick believes it must build exemplary “lighthouse” AR experiences to guide independent developers toward use cases they could enhance. Beyond creative expression, AR is progressing slowly because no one wants to hold a phone in the air for too long. But that’s also why Facebook is already investing in efforts to build its own AR headset.

Matt Miesnieks, from 6d.ai, announced the opening of his company’s augmented reality development platform to the public and made a case of the creation of an open mapping platform and toolkit for opening augmented reality to collaborative experiences and the masses.

Augmented reality headsets like Magic Leap and HoloLens tend to hog the spotlight, but phones are where most people will have their first taste. Parham Aarabi (ModiFace), Kirin Sinha (Illumix) and Allison Wood (Camera IQ) agreed that mainstreaming the tech is about three to five years away, with a successful standalone device like a headset somewhere beyond that. They also agreed that while there are countless tech demos and novelties, there’s still no killer app for AR.

Derek Belch (STRIVR), Clorama Dorvilias (DebiasVR) and Morgan Mercer (Vantage Point) took on the potential of VR in commercial and industrial applications. They concluded that making consumer technology enterprise-grade remains one of the most significant adoptions to virtual reality applications in business. (Companies like StarVR are specifically targeting businesses, but it remains to be seen whether that play will succeed.)

With Facebook running the VR show, how are small VR startups making a dent in social? The CEOs of TheWaveVR, Mindshow and SVRF all say that part of the key is finding the best ways for users to interact and making experiences that bring people together in different ways.

After a break, we were treated to a live demo of the VR versus boxing game Creed: Rise to Glory, by developer Survios co-founders Alex Silkin and James Iliff. They then joined me for a discussion of the difficulties and possibilities of social and multiplayer VR, both in how they can create intimate experiences and how developers can inoculate against isolation or abuse in the player base.

Early-stage investments are key to the success of any emerging industry, and the VR space is seeing a slowdown in that area. Peter Rojas of Betaworks and Greg Castle from Anorak offered more details on their investment strategies and how they see success in the AR space coming along as the tech industry’s biggest companies continue to pump money into the technologies.

UCLA contributed a moderator with Anderson’s Jay Tucker, who talked with Mariana Acuna (Opaque Studios) and Guy Primus (Virtual Reality Company) about how storytelling in VR may be in very early days, but that this period of exploration and experimentation is something to be encouraged and experienced. Movies didn’t begin with Netflix and Marvel — they started with picture palaces and one-reel silent shorts. VR is following the same path.

And what would an AR/VR conference be without the creators of the most popular AR game ever created? Niantic already has some big plans as it expands its success beyond Pokémon GO. The company, which is deep in development of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, is building out a developer platform based on their cutting-edge AR technologies. In our chat, AR research head Ross Finman talks about privacy in the upcoming AR age and just how much of a challenger Apple is to them in the space.

That wrapped the show; you can see more images (perhaps of yourself) at our Flickr page. Thanks to our sponsors, our generous hosts at UCLA, the motivated and interesting speakers and most of all the attendees. See you again soon!

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Old media giants turn to VC for their next act

Posted by | 21st century fox, Activision Blizzard, Axel Springer, bertelsmann, Entertainment, epic games, Gaming, Hearst, Media, Naspers, Netflix, Sky, Tencent, Venture Capital, WndrCo | No Comments

The Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras weren’t kind to the world’s largest media conglomerates, throwing their business models into question, creating whole new categories of content consumption, and bringing online competition to subscription and ad pricing. Many of the media giants from the 1990s and early 2000s remain market leaders with multi-billion dollar valuations, however, and have become active investors in startups as a tactic to help themselves evolve.

Of the traditional media companies that have committed to corporate venturing, there are two distinct strategies: those whose investing seems to be about replacing the historic classifieds section of newspapers and diversifying into a range of consumer-facing marketplaces, and those whose investing is concentrated on capturing an early glimpse (and early equity stake) in startups reshaping media.

Replacing Classifieds, Investing in Marketplaces

Mathias Doepfner, CEO of Axel Springer. The company’s startup accelerator is one of the most active in Europe. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Given the first crisis newspaper groups faced from tech startups in the 1990s and early 2000s was the rise of online classifieds sites (like Craigslist) and transactional marketplaces (like eBay and Amazon), the disruption of their lucrative classified ads revenue stream drove their attention to e-commerce.

Aside from Hearst, the major US newspaper and magazine chains – like Gannett, News Corp, Meredith Corp / Time Inc, and Digital First Media – haven’t made many investments in startups. Perhaps the financial straits of most US newspaper companies have left little cash for VC investments that won’t pay off for years in the future.

But in Northern and Central Europe, where news readership and even print publishing remain healthy by comparison, the leading media groups have been aggressively investing in marketplace and e-commerce startups across the continent over the last decade.

Europe’s leading publisher, Axel Springer has made itself an established player in the European startup scene. Axel Springer’s Digital Ventures team has backed marketplaces from Caroobi (for cars) to Airbnb, and their Berlin-based accelerator (run in partnership with Plug & Play) has invested in over 100 young startups, like digital bank N26, boat rental marketplace Zizoo, and influencer-brand marketplace blogfoster. In a move more strategic to its business, the 15,000-employee group made a large investment in augmented reality unicorn Magic Leap this past February as well, forming a partnership to leverage its content IP in the process.

Meanwhile, Norway’s Schibsted, Sweden’s Bonnier, and Germany’s Hubert Burda Media (best know to many in tech for their annual DLD conference in Munich) and Holtzbrinck Publishing are each globally active, multi-billion dollar publishers who operate active early- or growth-stage VC portfolios composed mainly of e-commerce brands and marketplaces.

The most iconic corporate venture investment by a newspaper conglomerate (or any company for that matter) is without question the $32M check written into 3-year-old Chinese social web startup Tencent in 2001 by the South African publishing group Naspers (founded in 1915). Tencent, now valued around $400B, is Asia’s largest and most powerful digital media company and Naspers’ 31% stake was worth roughly $175B in March 2018 when it sold $10B in shares.

As a result, Naspers has transformed into a holding company that incubates, acquires, and invests in online marketplace businesses around the globe (though it still maintains a relatively small publishing unit).

The challenge for traditional media companies investing in startups beyond the realm of media is that even if wildly successful, those investments neither give them a distinct advantage in media itself nor make their business model like that of a tech company by way of osmosis. These investments can be flashy distractions to make management and shareholders call the company innovative while it fails to actually re-envision its core operations. Investing in Airbnb or BaubleBar doesn’t address the key challenges or opportunities a traditional publishing group faces.

Therefore the best case scenario in this strategy seems to be that these companies find enough financial success that they just transition out of the content game and become holding companies for other types of consumer-facing brands the way Naspers has. But even then the path seems uncertain: despite all its other activities, Naspers’ market cap is less than the value of its Tencent shares…it’s not clear that the best case scenario necessarily transforms the core organization.

Investing in the Next Generation of Media

Thomas Rabe, CEO of German media group Bertelsmann. Bertelsmann is unique in treating startup investments as a dedicated division of the conglomerate. (TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The other track for “old media” giants has been to focus on venture capital as a means to uncover the future of the media business so the old guard can learn from the new generation of media entrepreneurs and react to market changes sooner than competitors. Intriguingly, it is consistent that the conglomerates who have taken this strategy are ones whose operations in television, radio, data, and telecom outweigh any involvement in newspapers.

Bertelsmann, Hearst, and 21st Century Fox have been the most aggressive corporate venture investors in startups working to shape the future of media, whether it be through streaming video services, crowdsourced storytelling platforms, or augmented reality.

With annual revenue over €17B, Bertelsmann is one of the largest media companies in the world, spanning television production and broadcasting (RTL Group), book publishing (Penguin Random House), newspapers, magazine publishing (Grüner + Jahr), and education. Unlike of media companies though, it treats venture investments in media startups as a key division of its company rather than as a side project.

The company’s core Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) invests across the US and Europe in companies like Audible, Mic, The Athletic, and Wondery (and in funds like Greycroft and SV Angel) but there are also the 3 regionally-focused funds investing in China, India, and Brazil plus the education-focused University Ventures fund it anchors in NYC. Collectively, Bertelsmann teams made 40 new startup investments in 2017 and generated €141M in venture returns, according to their 2017 Annual Report.

The investment arm of Hearst, one of America’s largest publishers with $10.8B in 2017 revenue, has likewise been a major backer of BuzzFeed, Pandora, Hootesuite, and Roku not to mention Chinese language app LingoChamp, live entertainment brand Drone Racing League, VR capture startup 8i, and dozens of other media-related startups. Hearst’s ownership in these ventures makes strategic sense: they provide market insights relevant to the core businesses, offer immediate partnership opportunities, and would be strategic acquisition targets that evolve the company’s position in a changing market.

21st Century Fox and Sky Plc (in which 21st Century Fox owns a 39% stake and is trying to acquire outright) have both made a whole slate of startup investments across the media sector in the last few years. In addition to its $100M investment in live-streaming platform Caffeine (announced on September 5) and similarly massive investment in WndrCo’s NewTV venture led by Meg Whitman, Fox has invested repeatedly in sports-centric OTT service fuboTV, hit newsletter brand TheSkimm, VR studio WITHIN, and fantasy sports app Draftkings with Sky often co-investing or building meaningful stakes in international startups like iflix (a leading streaming video service in Southeast Asia and the Middle East).

Since traditional media giants own extensive intellectual property of hit shows, films, and often exclusive rights to popular live events – not to mention established distribution channels to tens or hundreds of millions of people – there are immediate partnerships that can be signed to benefit both a startup and the incumbent. The incumbents often re-invest repeatedly to build their ownership and deepen the alignment between the companies, which rarely happens when media companies invest in marketplace startups.

Tencent’s always-be-evolving model

The new crop of digital media giants that includes Netflix, Snap, VICE, and BuzzFeed aren’t doing much if any strategic investing. Instead they’re keeping focused on growth of their core product offering. The notable exception is China’s Tencent.

In addition to dominating China’s booming messaging app sector with WeChat and QQ, owning 75% market share of music streaming in China, and being the world’s leading games publisher through its own studios (Riot Games, Supercell, etc.) and its minority stakes in Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, and others, Tencent has taken a strategy of investing often and early in promising digital media startups…and it has its tentacles in everything.

Based on Crunchbase data, Tencent has done over 300 investments in startups. It is likely the most active venture investor in China, where most of its portfolio is concentrated, but also backs Western media startups like SoundHound, Wattpad, Spotify, Smule, and Wonder Workshop.

Tencent can give distribution to these upstarts through its vast portfolio of digital properties and it can keep tabs on what new content formats or business models are gaining traction. It operates from a mindset of perpetually evolving, and trying to snatch up startups whose products could be key assets in the future of content creation, distribution, or monetization. This approach is one both old media giants and the next gen of unicorn media startups should consider.

The pace of innovation is moving so fast, and so many new doors are opening up – from subscription streaming and esports to voice interfaces and augmented reality – that corporate venture as a core strategy can unlock opportunities for the organization to evolve early, before it ends up being categorized as “old media”.

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Chat gaming startup Knock Knock raises $2M

Posted by | knock knock, Mobile, raine ventures, Recent Funding, Startups, Venture Capital | No Comments

Knock Knock, a startup building games for platforms like Facebook Messenger and WeChat, is announcing that it has raised $2 million in seed funding.

The goal isn’t to build interactive chat fiction, but rather fully fledged mobile games that are accessed from messaging apps, while also taking advantages of the opportunities offered by incorporating messaging and chatbots into the game mechanics.

“This is the most frictionless an experience can get,” said CEO Andrew Friday. “There’s no download, it’s hooked up to a fast messaging medium that you’re already using and people can bring their friends into the experience seamlessly.”

Friday was a senior product manager for chat games at Zynga, while his co-founder Andrew N. Green was previously the head of business operations at TinyCo. They plan to release their first game for Facebook Messenger later this year, and then a WeChat title in early 2019.

When I asked if there are any specific genres that will do best on messaging, Friday suggested that there’s actually “an embarrassment of riches.”

“Most great mobile game genres, and game genres in general, are good for the platform,” he said. “It’s just that if you try to just port those designs to the platform, it’s not going to work. If you rethink or reimagine these mechanics, how they would work best, how they would be most fun on the platform, there are so many genres that can work on chat.”

He also suggested that compared to FRVR, another recently funded startup looking to build chat games, Knock Knock is less focused on “hypercasual” games and instead taking “a deeper, more thoughtful approach.” Although thoughtfulness and depth are relative — Friday suggested that Knock Knock could still create the initial versions of its games in 90 days.

The funding was led by Raine Ventures, with participation from London Venture Partners, Ludlow Ventures and Gregory Milken.

“Knock Knock has the potential to usher in the next wave of chat games that will redefine the market,” said Courtney Favreau, a venture capital partner at Raine, in the funding announcement. “The founding team has an impressive track record in the mobile and chat gaming spaces and we’re very excited to help them bring their vision to life.”

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