Techstars Alum Netra Nabs Funding, Customers After Strategy Shift

Computer vision might one day enable things like completely autonomous cars, but for now, companies are more frequently applying such technology to more tractable (and lucrative) problems in sectors like marketing and e-commerce.

The latest example is Netra, a nearly three-year-old Boston startup that today announced $1.85 million in new venture funding led by Launchpad Venture Group and NXT Ventures.

The company uses software to organize and analyze vast reams of photos and videos posted online, helping advertisers, brands, and market research firms better understand consumer preferences and intent so they can sell them more stuff. The company also has a visual search product that automatically indexes and categorizes photos of e-commerce sites’ inventory so that visitors can more easily find products they’re seeking, says CEO Richard Lee (pictured above, right).

Netra accomplishes this with computer vision and deep learning techniques that can recognize objects in images—think a cup of coffee, pair of skis, or a child—as well as context, like a person’s gender, possible age, and facial expression, Lee says. The company has four pending patents. Its technology is based on research conducted at MIT, where founder and CTO Shashi Kant (above left) researched semantic Web and distributed computing technologies under Tim Berners-Lee, according to Kant’s LinkedIn profile.

The startup is wading into a crowded field of players big and small using artificial intelligence-related software to perform image analysis and search. Online advertising giants Google and Facebook have introduced automatic photo-tagging features, while startups like Boston-based Indico, San Francisco-based Sentient Technologies, Santa Monica, CA-based GumGum, and New York-based Clarifai offer image recognition software products and services to marketers, brands, and others.

Netra took some time to settle on a business approach. When it graduated from the Techstars Boston accelerator last fall, it was focused on analyzing video footage from surveillance cameras in and around retail outlets. The idea was to better understand foot traffic and what sorts of signs and other promotions spurred more sales.

But that business model didn’t stick with customers, says Lee, who quit his executive marketing job at Shaser Bioscience and joined Netra just before it entered the Techstars program. The company found retailers interested in piloting Netra’s product “because it was fascinating technology,” he says. “But it wasn’t a big enough pain point for them at that time to sign up for [longer] contracts.”

Netra doesn’t have a lot of traction with its new business yet, but it has its first big customer—Kantar, part of global advertising holding company WPP—and has signed a pilot agreement with a second undisclosed client, Lee says. “We’re talking to a bunch of folks,” he says. “We’ve found a much better fit with our technology now.”

For example, Netra is helping Kantar perform consumer research by processing and analyzing all the photos being shared with the firm by volunteers, Lee says. Down the road, the two companies plan to explore ways to incorporate Netra’s software with virtual and augmented reality technologies. “This is the future,” Lee says. “The world is becoming increasingly visual.”

Netra has raised $2.5 million from investors to date. Besides Launchpad and NXT, contributors to the new funding round include Zelkova Ventures, Berwind Group, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and other individuals, the company says in a press release.

Netra will use the money to invest in product development and grow its staff of six full-time employees to more than 10, Lee says.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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