With Disney-Jaunt investment, the era of VR content is upon us

Thanks to fresh capital and some powerful new partners, cinematic VR leader Jaunt may very well begin exploring a slew of new opportunities to create virtual reality content.

It also makes Jaunt the highest-funded VR content startup (+$100 million), and the first to get a serious investment ($65 million) from a couple of the world’s most influential legacy media companies, Disney and the Madison Square Garden Company. When you combine that with the impending arrival of consumer VR headsets, Jaunt is poised to kick off a new era of VR content — one that goes well beyond video games.

Jaunt’s business is focused on what it calls “an end-to-end solution for creating cinematic VR experiences,” which in regular-people words means it simplifies the process of creating VR video and processing it into virtual environments. But as you’ve probably gathered, creating VR content is a vastly different beast compared to standard films and videos.

How, you ask? For starters, shooting VR video requires 360-degree recording to empower audiences with a key element of VR: the ability to look around and place yourself in the scene. VR content also usually requires some innovative camera technology, like Jaunt’s patent-pending camera system called “NEO” that employs a bevy of image sensors and a slew of lenses to capture the video. And finally, once you’ve captured, you need to have the recordings processed and edited using a system that’s designed specifically for VR content, which Jaunt also provides.

But none of that really matters if there isn’t compelling content for people to consume. In fact, good content is a bigger factor for the rise of VR than VR headset comfortability or consumer friendly pricing.

There are dozens of companies making VR content–from Discovery to Volvo and from Ustwo Games (the studio behind the hyper-successful mobile game Monument Valley) to Legendary Studios–but following this successful series C Jaunt seems poised to put itself at the forefront of cinematic VR. At the moment, the company’s content library offers several VR experiences that are available through the Jaunt VR viewer (which can be found in the App Store), including a climb collaboration with The North Face, a concert with Sir Paul McCartney, and a profoundly frightening VR horror experience called Black Mass.

Jaunt’s content largely centers around short experiences that place viewers in the space of the narrative, and it’s easy to imagine Jaunt jumping into Disney’s rich IP library to bring new stories, characters and spaces into the VR fold. Likewise, Disney — which has long-been involved in developing immersive experiences (like popular theme park attraction Soarin’, for example) — will almost definitely be presented with new VR opportunities for experiential tie-ins with its films and television shows. It may even open the door to theme park experiences outside of the theme parks themselves. (Because why should anyone have to wait until summer vacation to ride Space Mountain, ya know?)

Involvement from fellow Jaunt investor the Madison Square Garden Company, on the other hand, could absolutely signal the intent to continue developing VR experiences around live events, such as the concert with Paul McCartney. Working with the Madison Square Garden Company (which includes MSG, The Beacon Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, the Chicago Theatre, and others) would certainly open up opportunities to capture live events and create experiences around stage productions.

Though Jaunt is heavily involved in what it calls “cinematic VR”, it’s important to keep in mind that feature-length VR experiences are still a ways off. However, Disney and the Madison Square Garden Company’s financial vote of confidence in Jaunt speaks volumes about the future of VR content. While we aren’t going to see a VR Pixar film anytime soon, it seems entirely likely that we’ll see more VR content stemming from the resources (IP and media partnerships) of its new investors.

What’s in your food? Clear Labs nabs $6.5M to help the food industry find out

While a large portion of people in the U.S. may have a fascination with the quality of food that goes into their bodies, the process for testing that food is pretty inefficient, costly, and hasn’t changed much in decades.
“Traditional food testing methods require you to know what it is you’re looking for prior to testing,” and is limited to one component per test, Clear Labs CEO Sasan Amini told me in an interview. Because of this, he said, much of the food industry only performs tests on food as a reactionary method.
That’s something his company Clear Labs aims to fix with its Clear View molecular food testing technology, which launched in beta recently. The tech can take a single sample of food and provide an analysis on all ingredients, accuracy of those ingredients, and of course the quality of the food itself. The company told me Clear View uses genomic sequencing and analysis, which is the same tech used in clinical trials to personalize cancer treatments.
While that tidbit is interesting, I don’t know how relevant it is to Clear Labs ability to make money. That didn’t stop the startup from closing a $6.5 million round of funding today, led by Khosla Ventures and Felicis Ventures. Also, the startup does have a promising business strategy, which includes focusing less on safety testing for bacteria and other harmful substances while targeting large consumer food brands and companies.
Since Clear View can give you a breakdown of everything that’s in a particular type of food, Amini said he sees a bright future getting the marketing departments to rally in support of testing a whole line of products to improve sales. One example he gave would be a well-known food brand doing analysis on all existing lines of products to find out which naturally do not contain gluten. Theoretically, this data could be used to form a whole new line of gluten-free products without spending much more than packaging design and advertising.
Additionally, Clear Labs provides its clients with access to a database of food analysis to help them make decisions about the food they produce. You won’t be able to check out individual competitors products, as all the data is anonymized and reinterpreted into useful stats by the Clear Labs team.
Amini said Clear Labs plans to launch the full version of its food analytics and database platform in the first half of 2016.
 

CartoDB raises $23M to expand its data visualization tools

Location data company CartoDB raised a fresh $23 million in new funding to grow its data visualization services, the company announced today.
CartoDB, which launched in 2012, combines data with maps to created insightful, visualized analysis that can show everything from where support for presidential candidate Donald Trump is strongest to which areas in the Netherlands had the most stolen cars to the global Twitter engagement during the UEFA Champions League Final.
An ideal tool for the evolving, data visualization-heavy approach to journalism, CartoDB’s products are also being deployed for business. The company’s location intelligence offerings have been used by Amtrak, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Deloitte, and others.
“We build the technology that helps organizations construct value from location data,” said CartoDB founder and chief executive Javier de la Torre. “We are helping them explore and take advantage of their data.”
According to the company, the series B investment will be used to continue to develop its location-focused analysis tools and to push into the global marketplace — both areas in which a leader in location intelligence has yet to emerge to take advantage of the explosion in mobile device usage over the past decade. The $23 million funding round was led by Accel Partners, with Salesforce Ventures, as well as prior investors Earlybird Ventures and Kibo Ventures also taking place in the round.
“This is a very exciting time for the company, especially with one of the top investors in the world [Accel] being involved,” de la Torre said of the new investment. “It sends a clear message about the future of location intelligence as a market. It is something we’ve seen more and more companies looking to take advantage of.”
One interesting aspect of the new funding is the involvement of Salesforce’s investment arm. Having one of the largest business SaaS companies not only want to use your product but to financially back you further validates CartoDB’s data visualization mission.

Report: Uber raised a $1.6 billion convertible debt round

Uber clearly does not subscribe to the ‘mo money ‘mo problems theory. The company has raised another $1.6 billion dollars, this time in a convertible debt round from Goldman Sachs according to Bloomberg sources. It’s a loan that will turn into a stake in the company when Uber goes public, at a 20 to 30 percent discount on Uber’s IPO valuation. It adds to the company’s warchest, bringing its total funding up to more than $4 billion, with the company still working to raise another $600 million in the near future from hedge funds.

Y Combinator analyzed its data to figure out whether it’s discriminating

Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most popular business accelerator program for startups, released data to show it’s not discriminating against women, Hispanic and black founders when choosing what to fund.

It sampled 5 percent of its Winter 2015 applicants to find out their gender and ethnicity. It then compared the demographic statistics to the percentage of companies it funds.

YC found that it funds a comparable percentage of diverse companies to the applications it receives. The numbers aren’t 100 percent bulletproof, of course, since YC didn’t disclose how it drew its random 5 percent sample to represent its application demographics.

However, the accelerator should be commended for making the effort to check its funding tendencies at all and share the data publicly. Almost all of Silicon Valley’s big tech companies have diversity problems, which we compared using visualizations in August.

Here’s the numbers from YC’s blog:

11.8% of the founders who applied were women and around 3% percent of the founders were either Black or Hispanic.

Of the founders we funded in our most recent batch, 11.1% of the founders are women (about 23% of the startups have one or more female founders), 3.7% of the founders are Hispanic, and 4% of the founders are Black.

The accelerator acknowledged that although it doesn’t appear to discriminate in its funding choices, it’s problematic that so few female, black and hispanic founders apply to YC.  “We will continue and strengthen our outreach efforts,” YC partner Michael Seibel said in the post.

On the way to $220M in funding, Instacart quietly changed its business model

In its early days, grocery store delivery startup Instacart made its money two ways: Through delivery fees and product markups. It charged customers more for individual groceries than their in-store price.

But in the last year, the company shifted its revenue strategy. It is allowing some grocery store partners to price their own goods on Instacart. In return, the grocers pay Instacart a fee to service their locations.  It explains why for some grocers the products cost the same on Instacart as they do in store, but for others the price is more (or, confusingly, less).

“We don’t want to be in the pricing game,” Instacart’s head of business Nilam Ganenthiran told me. “There’s exceptions, but that’s generally true. Retailers outsource their e-commerce to us for a fee.”

Although there’s variations in how each partnership is structured, Ganenthiran said the fee, charged to grocery store retailers, is now the company’s “primary model.”

Instacart never made any official announcements about its change in business strategy. I didn’t find out until questioning Ganenthiran about its profit margins. As a result, earlier this week when Instacart received its spate of news coverage over its $220 million funding and reported $2 billion valuation, some outlets misreported Instacart’s business model.

“There has been a perception of the markup model being our primary economic engine due to how we started 2.5 years ago,” Ganenthiran told me. “Our model actually has been evolving.”

Most publications didn’t realize that. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to write an additional story, separate from its funding brief, breaking down a potential Instacart profit on a typical grocery store transaction. The numbers didn’t look good, suggesting Instacart might make as low as $1.40 on an order of 15 basic items.

But since Instacart’s revenue isn’t primarily tied to product markups anymore, that may not be representative of its profit margins.

Instacart wouldn’t tell me whether its grocery store partner fee is calculated per item, per order, per customer, per month, or some other variant. It also wouldn’t disclose how much that fee is. Neither would Whole Foods when I reached out to them for comment, and Safeway didn’t respond. Without knowing what grocery stores are paying Instacart, it’s hard to deduce the company’s potential profit margins on each delivery. “There’s different strategies with different partners,” Ganenthiran explained.

In theory, it’s much smarter for Instacart to charge grocery stores a fee than for it to eke out profits on product markups. That kind of partnership makes grocery stores more amenable to improving Instacart’s efficiency (like offering the company its own personal checkout line). It also shields Instacart from the risk of variable food prices. Ganenthiran said, “Most grocers are past the tipping point where they understand consumers want this service.”

UK hotspot startup Purple WiFi raises $5M

Purple WiFi is a wireless hotspot company that doesn’t own any hotspots. Instead it has built a virtual network of business Wi-Fi access points available to the public for free – as long as they’re willing login with their social media credentials.

Now the previously self-funded U.K. startup has raised its first outside money, announcing Wednesday a $5 million round led by former Tessco CEO Terry Leahy and the William Currie Group with participation from Juno Capital. Purple said it would use the funds to hire more staff and expand outside of the U.K.

Purple basically offers a trade-off between businesses and their customers: Cafes, stores, restaurants, hotels and even museums will give their customers free Wi-Fi access with minimal login fuss in exchange for analytics and the right to market their wares at those same customers. Businesses who sign up use their existing Wi-Fi routers, tying them to Purple’s managed service in the cloud, which handles logins and tracks customer data as well as hosts Purple’s marketing platform.

From a consumer’s point of view, when you enter a Purple business you use whatever social media credentials you choose to login into the Purple WiFi portal and then get free wireless internet access. That idea isn’t new. [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Google[/company] are trying to build virtual Wi-Fi networks using their user IDs as the keys to unlock public hotspots and in exchange getting access to valuable consumer data.

Purple is a bit more consumer friendly on the credentials side, though, as it doesn’t tie you down to a specific social network. Right now it supports Facebook, [company]Twitter[/company], Google and Instagram as well as China’s Weibo and Russia’s VKontakte.