The River Accelerator: Virtual Reality to Frontier Tech

Driving Success for Exceptional Early-Stage Frontier Founders

Dylan Flinn
Feb 17, 2016 · 6 min read

Our journey into Frontier Technology began at Rothenberg Ventures where we love founders and we love Virtual Reality.

In early 2014, we became fascinated by the entrepreneurs working in virtual reality and the technology they were building. Our first step was to understand these exploding new platforms and the intricacies of latency, high end graphics, positional tracking, game engines, and a 360 degree world. We met with hundreds of developers, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and hobbyists and we invested in what would become two of Virtual Reality’s breakout companies: Matterport (’13) and Altspace (‘14).

Eric Romo says it well, in virtual reality, your product is your pitch, and in 2014/2015 we saw some of the best pitches we’d ever seen.

First time trying Altspace

We came to realize two things: VR as a technology was nearly ready for massive growth but VR startups were not.

We noted, as a group, that they were driven by vision and tackling complex challenges, rather than notoriety or financial gains. Most were more technical, but less experienced entrepreneurs than many of their peers in other industries. We also discovered many of them to be fearless learners.

This was one of the first “aha” moments: virtual reality entrepreneurs needed more than others we’ve encountered, the money yes, but even far more advice, guidance, access to the right networks, and direct support.

Our second “aha” moment was that when it came to VR, most investors were sitting on the sidelines. Investment into these companies was coming from bootstrapped entrepreneurs and innovative corporations. Few consumer technology incumbents survived the shift from web to mobile, and a new class of incumbents knew they had to get ahead of this wave.

“Aha” moment number three flowed easily. We were onto something, uncovering a gap in the marketplace; a need for an accelerator focused solely on driving the success of global Virtual Reality founders, so we built it. We called it the “River Accelerator” and announced in late 2014. Other investors commended the move, but took a “wait and see” approach, unwilling at first to risk their capital alongside ours.

We focused on building a custom-tailored accelerator, based on the needs of a specific group and type of entrepreneur. Virtual Reality became our business and our passion.

We poured over the applications from 400 Virtual Reality startups. We chose 13 we believed had exceptional chances of breakout success and the staying power to see this through. Despite the difficulty of people developing with DK1s and earlier generation Smartphones, there were promising virtual reality applications in gaming, health care, exposure training, communication, art, design, and social media.

The first River Accelerator class graduated on May 7, 2015 at AT&T Park in front of 100 curated investors. We are thrilled to say collectively, the startups raised $17M in additional capital in less then a year and continue to blaze trails in the industry.

You can learn more about the first class of River here.

Our conviction in the space continued to increase as momentum built internally and as we watched events unfolding in the market. HTC announced their own HMD, the Google Cardboard team scaled up, Samsung announced a core business strategy commitment to Virtual Reality, the Samsung’s Gear VR store opened in partnership with Oculus, Oculus made multiple acquisitions, major Hollywood studios ramped up VR production, and there were multiple later stage fundings in the space. This is just the short list of how fast the industry is moving.

We witnessed the most active VR entrepreneurs look up occasionally to a new world of market enthusiasm, and then put their heads down feverishly developing and designing for the predicted incoming wave of consumers.

From May to the end of 2015, our River Accelerator became much more. We brought on a Virtual Reality EIR, spun out a Virtual Reality production house named River Studios, brought on a team of talented technologists and animators and launched the second class.

If there’s one thing we learned for certain, it’s that you have to see virtual reality to believe it. Our conviction derived from instinct, research, hands-on experience, and anecdotal user experience from over 1,000 people we demo’d Virtual Reality experiences to over the past two years. We took note of the shock, awe, elation, and absolute curiosity of users.

One of my favorite parts of the job.

Then we had another “aha moment”. Virtual Reality is an evolution of multiple innovations in optics, microprocessing, graphics, rapid prototyping, big data, machine vision, 3D development, and more. We took these technologies and started to see where else there was exponential impact. Around this same time, CB Insights noted that we were the #1 VR/AR investors as well as the #1 Frontier Technology investors. Outside of virtual reality we invested in leading frontier technology companies such as Dronebase, Gridspace, Sols, August, Planet Labs, and SpaceX. We broadened our focus to produce an offering specializing in “frontier technology,” which we see as the area of innovation in between R&D and commercialization. The focus currently includes artificial intelligence, robotics, machine vision, drones, space infrastructure, quantum computing, 3D printing, and of course virtual and augmented reality.

River II featured companies in many of those spaces.

Proud day for River.

Validation further came from follow on investors that are frontier technology experts such as Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Accel — all firms that we have tremendous respect for.

The cycle for us looked like this.

2014 — “You’re crazy.”

2015 — “You‘re early.”

2016 — “How do we help?”

There is so much more to come. Our team at Rothenberg Ventures is focused on funding the boldest creators and entrepreneurs. Past funding, we want to ride the highs and the lows with you. We want to be a part of your team.

We look to fund those that can answer questions like, “why does this HAVE to be in virtual reality?” “Why is NOW the time for this to exist?” “How will this make the customer’s life easier?” The type of companies we invest in through River will look more like magic than technology.

Never before has there been a larger number of soon-to-be massive companies, that are right now in a small office with less than a dozen people. Their internet is fast and their meals are cheap. We are going to invest and support those companies with all of the conviction and resources we have.

We want You to Apply.

I suck at photoshop, but this was fun.

The further out you can think and the faster you can move, the more we want to invest in you.

In VR we want to fund developer tools, teleportation devices, UGC platforms, commerce applications, and anything that makes virtual reality more immersive and approachable. In other frontier tech, we are looking for founders pushing the boundaries on artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, drones, 3D printing, robotics, automation software and space. Of course, we’re also always looking for time machine startups.

Thanks to the brilliant entrepreneurs and the technologies mentioned above, we live in a world of exponential change and opportunity. Consumers and enterprises with the abilities to harness these technologies will have super-hero like abilities until the rest of the market catches up.

To stay tuned on our journey, follow Rothenberg Ventures, where we’ll share our learnings and investments we’re making.

Dylan Flinn

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Change is Permanent.