Late last year, three-year-old Rothenberg Ventures announced it would be launching a startup accelerator, River, that planned to provide $100,000 in seed funding to virtual reality companies expressly. To some, it might have seemed like a calculated, and possibly unwise, bit of counterprogramming. After all, by backing a variety of startups, most accelerator programs are able to hedge their bets and reduce the risk that a whole batch will fall out of fashion.
Yet the San Francisco firm argues that the the 13 companies it has selected, from roughly 200 applicants, is as diverse as any early Y Combinator class. An eye-mounted head-tracking display that helps the physically challenged with daily tasks? Check. Virtual reality technology that changes the way people experience news events? Check. “Everyone keeps calling it a ‘sector,’” says the firm’s founder, Mike Rothenberg. “But just as the Internet is ubiquitous, virtual reality will be ubiquitous in 10 or 20 years. This technology is really going to change everyone’s life.” We talked about it yesterday.
You’re about to welcome 13 companies into your new accelerator program, which will run from February through May. What was the criteria for acceptance?
We were really looking for the most innovative applications across every industry. We also wanted a mix of hardware and software. We didn’t know what we’d get, but we have companies coming from Japan, South Africa, New Zealand France — companies building great companies in education, in pain management . . .
How far along are they?
They’re pretty mature companies for the most part. Some have been building their companies for eight to ten years. Fove, which makes an eye-tracking head mounted display that lets users navigate using their eye movements, has a complete product that works and is amazing.
Have these companies raised capital in the past?
Some of them have some capital. [Fove, for example, passed through Microsoft Ventures Accelerator in London last summer.] But in general, venture capital hasn’t been focused on virtual reality too much yet, so in some cases, the companies hadn’t raised anything prior. We have a South African company that bootstrapped and figured out a way to get customers to pay for VR from the beginning.
What size stake are you taking for your $100,000?
We aren’t disclosing that. We looked at Y Combinator and other accelerators and incubators and tried to learn [from what they do].
Just two companies you’ve accepted are hardware companies. Is that by design? Do you think most people will be creating virtual reality technology for platforms like Samsung Gear VR and the upcoming Oculus Rift?
We didn’t have set targets, but in my opinion, the big companies know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of good hardware being built by great tech companies with deeper pockets; smartphone use will become more common, too. So software and content companies might be a little more of a fit [for this program].
We also just saw so a lot of mind-blowing applications. We have a company, Psious, a smartphone-based tool that’s solving phobias by simulating heights and plane travel and spiders. Another, DeepStream, tackles pain management. Burn victims enter into a world of snow and it lessens their pain. A third company, Emblematic Group in L.A., is doing immersive journalism, showing reporters what it can feel like to be on the streets when a bomb goes off and hopefully making them more empathic in the process.
Why announce the companies now? Why not wait until they’re ready to meet with investors at a demo day you’re staging in May?
We want them to take advantage of their affiliation with River while they’re here in America. Some of them are already planning to move to San Francisco. Many of them are here for three months alone, and we want them to meet with the people they want to meet, including investors.
Those investors will invariably be conjuring up exit scenarios. Aside from Facebook and its subsidiary Oculus, which acquired two VR companies last month, do we know what companies are actively shopping for VR technologies?
The smartest companies. It’s the same for everything. Who’s going to buy the 360-degree action sports camera? Whoever is making cameras and wants to stay in business.
You can find River’s full list of startups here:
DeepStream VRDescription: VR games for pain relief and rehabilitationTag line: Virtual Reality games to relieve painFounders: Howard Rose, Ari HollanderWebsite: http://deepstreamvr.
com/DiscovrDescription: immersive learning experiences about exploring the ancient worldFounder: Josh Maldonado, Omar Charles, Professor Bernard FrischerBased in: Toronto, CanadaWebsite: http:// immersivediscovery.com/Emblematic GroupDescription: immersive journalism in VRFounder: Nonny de la PenaWebsite: www.emblematicgroup. com/EmergentVRDescription: application to create, edit and share 360 VR experiences with the world using mobile phonesFounders: Peter Wilkins, Chris WheelerWebsite: n/a
FoveDescription: The world’s first headset to use eye tracking to create an immersive experienceFounders: Yuka Kojima, Lochlainn WilsonBased in: Tokyo, JapanWebsite: http://fove-inc.com/InnerspaceDescription: high quality VR content focused on artistic and cultural expressionFounder: Balthazar Auxietre and Hayoun KwonBased in: Paris, FranceWebsite: http://innerspacevr.
com/PsiousDescription: platform for mental health practitioners to help patients cure fears using immersion therapy in VRFounders: Xavier Palomer, Danny RoigBased in SpainWebsite: http://psious.com/
Reload StudiosDescription: independent game studio made of ex-Call of Duty developers and ex-Disney artistsFounder: James ChungWebsite: http://reload-
SDKDescription: VR for industrial trainingFounders: Shaun Wilson, Christian Yves FongangBased in: South AfricaWebsite: http://sdklab.com/SoliraxDescription: education platform for exploration, discovery and creativityFounders: Tomas Mariancik and Karel HulecWebsite: http://www.
worldofcomenius.com/ThotwiseDescription: indie game studio focusing on exploration and suspenseFounder: Ariel AriasBased in: ArgentinaWebsite: thehumgame.comTriggarDescription: 360-degree capture camera and systemFounders: Bruce Allan and Rob AllanBased in: AustraliaWebsite: http://www.triggar. com.au/Vantage VRDescription: 180 degree viewing experience for concerts and live eventsTag line: Ticketmaster for VR eventsFounders: Juan Santillan, Michael RichardsonWebsite: vantage.tv