VCs Eye Location-Based Startups

With UMTS license bids in Germany in full swing [2000], there’s tons of hype about the coming of the mobile Internet. Signs are encouraging that the new mobile Internet will in fact allow VCs to look at some rapidly emerging technologies that will indeed change the way Europeans use information.

And right now, the smart money is betting on location services. VCs are saying they’re the coming killer app on the UMTS-powered mobile internet. The character string “m-” is currently as in vogue as was the character string “e-” two years ago. The space is heating up quickly, but there’s room for many.

“We haven’t yet invested in the end-application space, but I’m certainly personally very interested in finding some good, solid business plans in the area,” said Peter Boehringer, Investment Manager at 3I in Munich, which currently invests in location infrastructure company, Cambridge Positioning Systems.

“These are great applications that allow businesses to super-target their marketing and sales to very specific areas without wasting a lot of money. And the user likes it, too, because they get noticed and start getting offered things they really want and can use. Up to now no one’s been able to address this really local market on a broad scale.”

Great. So in the near future, as we’ve all heard, if we’re within five minutes’ walk of a Starbucks, our phone will beep telling us that a) a friend of ours happens to be nearby, and b) if we’d like to get together and have a coffee, we’ll get $1 off a large half-caf-mocca-skim-chocca-no-fat-triple-latte –if we show up in the next ten minutes.

There are two sides to the space, both interesting. There’s infrastructure technology – companies like Cambridge Positioning Systems, which develop the technology that can do the positioning systems and report locations of users. Cambridge’s Cursor system compares the relative times of arrival of signals between base transceiver stations and the actual handset and can thus extrapolate a user’s location within 50 meters or so. Cursor has already undergone trials working with companies including the AA, Vodafone and Maxon.

And then there are other companies, such as iProx that are developing means to use the positioning data for end-commerce applications.

“iProx is a very interesting company,” said Martin Fiennes, Investment Manager at Top Technology Limited, a UK VC firm, “and we’ve indirectly invested in them through Brainspark. Iprox is developing a series of applications and my personal view is that I don’t know which of them will become the killer app, but I’m confident that one or more of them will.” iProx received seed funding of US$1 million in April, and is presently in the middle of an interim round of funding, looking for £3 to £5 million.

“The trick is,” said Ravi Kanodia, Iprox co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, “if you know where the people, stores and places of interest are, then you can be quite clever with the technology, for example by letting people know when their buddies’ phones are in the area without their actually “asking” for it, through our use of intelligent profiling. You have to be capable of following millions of users but you mustn’t send the traffic bandwidth through the roof or require millions of supercomputers to process.”

There are barriers.

First, the technical: telecoms believe that the location data it can provide are the crown jewels in their collection of services, and they’re not only not willing to let those go cheaply, they want to have total control over them. This brings up the issue of just whose data it is – it isn’t the operator’s location, it’s the user’s location, and it could well be argued that the user may indeed own the rights to his location signal.

But it would seem that this first barrier is less of a problem than it might seem: true, different telecoms use different technology, and have in the past refused to share it with their rivals. But companies offering end-use applications will have the opportunity to act as a ‘Switzerland’ – a middle ground interface offering cross-platform services. This has benefits for both telecoms and users: for example, SMS usage became what it is today only after the telecoms allowed it to became a cross platform tool.

“I think that rather than the services being controlled by the operators,” said Sandeep Kapadia, Investment Associate at Prime Technology Ventures in Amsterdam, “what we’ll see is something similar to the web-based portals, and similar to what NTT DoCoMo is currently doing: synergy of multiple applications. There will be hundreds of available applications, from hundreds of companies, and the operators will take a cut.”

Another barrier is, naturally, that this brings up the old privacy bugaboo in a major way. Privacy laws and etiquette varies throughout Europe, and, as 3i’s Boehringer says, “Not everyone wants their movements tracked.”

But VCs agree that solutions to the legal as well as the privacy issues are on the horizon, perhaps as early as this coming autumn. Users probably will be able to selectively give permission to m-marketers to allow them to receive, say, certain types of offers. Or use Iprox’s much touted “buddy system”, which tracks the movements of a group of friends, constantly vigilant for the opportunity to beep any two and tell them they’re in close proximity to one another.

And the legal issues are currently under review throughout Europe as well. It is to the advantage of all parties to come up with a solution to any legal barriers as quickly as possible.

One last thing: this is an entirely Euro-phenom. US-based mobile systems are simply too creaky, too convoluted and frankly to pre-m-historic to even contemplate such a system without major investment. With this technology, Europe clearly leads the way, and things are moving fast – so fast that searching the internet for companies in the space will likely be an unrewarding activity.

“We’re talking about something that’s moving fast,” said 3i’s Boehringer, “way too fast for Internet here.”