Mapping the world and why Wellington backs Mapillary

Some background first. For anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with me, you’ll know that in 1998 I was a seed investor in Navteq, a company that became the major player in the development of Geographic Information Systems and a company with a fascinating story.

Navteq was the pioneer in mapping the world based on a combination of first-hand observation and official government maps gathered across the planet. The team drove around a large fleet of cars equipped with a differential GPS system, adding precise data and linking this to the mapping institutions. They developed the software that we’ve become so familiar with — the software that allowed for access to continuously corrected and updated maps. They became the market leader; in fact, there’s a 70 per cent chance the satnav you’re using relies on the mapping databases they developed.

When I invested in Navteq in 1998 they had zero revenues. In 2004 the company went public for $2 billion, and in 2007 it was bought by Nokia for $8.2 billion (now known as the Nokia HERE product).

I’ve always stayed really interested in this sector, not least because the Navteq story is so engrained in my own VC experience. We took this company from a start-up without revenues, to many hundreds of millions of revenues, in an incredibly short period of time. It’s easy to think that navigation and mapping starts and ends with the big names — Apple, Google, etc., but, thankfully for us startup fans, there’s a little more to it than that and the arrival of the smartphone in every one of our pockets is instrumental.

One of these trends is the world now moving to crowdsourcing models which are ultimately far more scalable than Navteq (or Google for that matter) driving around in cars or even flying drones.

Which brings me to Mapillary, a company we’re backing in their seed round (alongside Sequoia, Playfair Capital and a number of great business angels).

Today Mapillary takes this all a step further; creating picture content through a crowdsourcing model. Think a crowdsourced Google Street View, allowing for much higher updating frequency and areas that can not be easily reached by a Google car (at least until they start flying drones into your back yard). Computer vision on the server side automatically matches and combines photos across time and across users.

Mapillary allows anyone to contribute and collect photos that are then combined into a street-level photo view. The tech allows really up-to-date pictures to be uploaded onto the site and has the ability to cover more places than other map creators, leveraging the proliferation of smartphones and action cameras. It’s the wisdom of the crowd that drives the platform — not only in terms of contribution but also on validation as users decide which pictures will be the ones that are used primarily.

The Navteq parallel is indeed striking so I simply could not resist and I wanted to try and repeat that story again. For me it’s partly a memory deal but from my perspective there’s also a couple of great indications that we VCs are always on the look-out for;

Mapillary boasts an impressive founding team. The CEO, Jan Erik Solem, has been working on image recognition software for a long time. His previous company, Polar Rose, worked on the ability to extract 3D features from a single 2D image used in image recognition and was sold to Apple. Jan Erik developed the software further, working at Apple for two years before founding Mapillary. The founding team is made up of architects with experience and knowledge spanning computer vision PhDs and the graph database company Neo Technology.

Aside from a great team and founders with the knowledge, experience and assurance to take on some of the global leaders in this field, the early traction of the app with end users, which is relatively basic, proves the potential of this company and really spurred our interest. More than a million pictures are uploaded in the system on a monthly basis!

We look forward to working with Jan Erik and the team! Stay tuned.

For more on our General Partners and their individual areas of interest and experience, head to LinkedIn or Twitter.

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