Public Media Collides with Silicon Valley at Matter Accelerator; Six Startups Emerge

6/13/13Follow @wroush

What happens when you bring Silicon Valley business and product-design thinking to bear on problems faced by content creators, publishers, and average citizens looking for more powerful ways to communicate? That’s the question under investigation at Matter, a San Francisco-based venture accelerator born from the public media sector. It’s not the Bay Area’s first media-focused accelerator (Media Camp, operated by Turner Broadcasting and Warner Bros., holds that title), but it’s the only one with backing from non-profits like San Francisco public broadcaster KQED and the Knight Foundation.

Matter had its coming out party in December and today it graduated its first class of six startups, in a two-hour demo day event at the accelerator’s hip garage space a block away from South Park in SoMa. As venture and angel investors looked on, teams pitched ideas ranging from a crowdsourced spoken-word narration service for text publishers (SpokenLayer) to a network for instant video journalism in news hotspots like Egypt or Turkey (OpenWatch).

“Entrepreneurs will leverage technology to create the future of storytelling,” Matter managing director Corey Ford said in his introduction. The common mission of startups admited to Matter’s program is “to educate and inspire but also connect and empower, in a way that is human-centered, prototype-driven, and seeking sustainable business models.”

SpokenLayer's whiteboard at Matter

SpokenLayer's whiteboard at Matter

Ford says Matter received hundreds of applications for its first class of six startups, which each received $50,000 in funding and five months of mentoring and product development help. Following the typical accelerator model, Matter brought in experienced entrepreneurs and executives for a weekly speaker series, and held weekly sharing sessions where the startups critiqued one another’s work. One unusual feature: a monthly “design review” attended by advisors from outside Matter. Ford called it a “mini Demo Day” intended to help companies weed out bad ideas quickly.

In the end, I’d say some of the Mattter startups exemplified the accelerator’s education and empowerment better than others. Only one or two of the Matter startups would have been out of place as part of a mainstream technology accelerator like Y Combinator, TechStars, or 500 Startups (I’m thinking of OpenWatch and perhaps Zeega).

When I commented to Matter founding partner Jake Shapiro, the CEO of the Public Radio Exchange, that some of the companies looked to me like pure enterprise plays, rather than products of a public-media mindset, he acknowledged that “there’s always going to be that tension” inside Matter—which must, after all, earn a return on its investments. But even the enterprise-oriented companies enrolled at Matter are providing services that are of interest to public media organizations like KQED, Shapiro added.

Here’s a rundown of the six companies in the first group—what Ford called “Matter 1.” All of the companies said they’re seeking seed funding in amounts varying from $500,000 to $1.2 million. (Matter’s second run starts in October; applications are open now.)

SpokenLayer 

The premise at SpokenLayer is that there’s too much text-based content hitting the Web every day to read it all the old-fashioned way. If more of it were available in spoken-word form, audiences could listen during times when they’re not at a screen (e.g. on a commuter train, stuck in traffic, or cooking in the kitchen). So the New York-based startup, led by CEO Will Mayo, is striving to “take great content from the Web, narrate it with real people, and make it accessible on any platform,” in Mayo’s words.

The core of the service is a global crowdsourcing network that allows the company to produce an audio recording of a news article within 26 minutes of its publication on the Web. At The New Republic, SpokenLayer’s first publishing partner, Web traffic data showed that 58 percent of people who started consuming the audio versions of the magazine’s online articles listened all the way through—compared to about 10 percent for the text versions. Mayo announced in his talk that SpokenLayer has just four more publishing partners: Fast Company, Narratively, Tablet magazine, and TimeOut New York. Eventually, the company plans to offer a self-service version for smaller publishers.

Inkfold

If you know Inkfold through its existing product, a personalized news reader app for iPhones and iPads, forget all that. Co-founder Daniel Davis says the app was Inkfold’s MVP, or minimum viable product, and that joining Matter gave his team the opportunity to “dig much deeper and find the real pain point” for people who consume text content on mobile devices.

That pain: the difficulty of organizing and pursuing all of the content people find out about from their friends via e-mailed links. What readers need, Davis says, is “a product that finds these links and prints them in one place that is convenient to read and comment on.”

Through a Gmail plugin that’s currently in private beta testing, Inkfold scans a user’s incoming e-mail and assembles linked content inside a clean, mobile-friendly interface resembling Pocket or Instapaper. When you finish reading an article in Inkfold, the person who sent you the link will be notified, and it’s easy to send back comments pegged to specific passages from the text. That “closes the loop” and makes the service inherently viral, Davis says.

“Lost links are missed connections,” Davis says. In fact, the content links that people share by e-mail amounts to an informal but important social network—a sort of reading circle. “We all have it; Inkfold merely exposes it,” Davis says.

OpenWatch 

History couldn’t have manufactured a better real-world use case for OpenWatch than the citizen uprisings raging right now in Istanbul over the planned demolition of Gezi Park. OpenWatch organizes stories like this into “investigations” open to anyone who wants to contribute first-hand video reports.

The technical heart of OpenWatch is a video streaming system that can collect live video from iOS and Android phones and republish it in seconds for others to watch on their phones. Co-founder Rich Jones calls it “the fastest way to get video online.” To put the platform to use, the company identifies “agents” on the ground—there are currently 650 of them across 42 countries—who can be activated on a free or paid basis to collect video or photo coverage of public events like the Gezi Park protests. The material they send back can find its way into reports published by independent media outlets, NGOs, or non-profit organizations. Jones calls OpenWatch “a global marketplace for reporting, analysis, and insight.”

Mixation

Media organizations have spent lots of time and money producing live and recorded video for distribution online. The paradox is that most of this video is hidden away in hard-to-find, hard-to-watch places, meaning viewership is paltry, says Mixation founder John Labes. His startup’s idea is simple: To take all that existing video—whether it’s hosted on YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, Ustream, Livestream or Justin.tv—and organize it into a continuous, television-style stream that can be experienced in “lean-back” fashion.

“What if we could take all the videos from a company like CNET and turn them into a legitimate television experience?” asks Labes. With a Mixation station, he says, “everybody watches synchronously, and as a viewer no action is required of me whatsoever. I can pop this experience out on watch on my desktop all day long, or even go full screen for a true lean-back experience.”

Labes thinks high-traffic sites like news organizations, content portrals, retailers, sports teams, and prominent bloggers and YouTubers will be willing to pay for the Mixation service, which has both free and paid levels. Right now Mixation stations play only on the Web, but the startup is building versions that will work on iOS and Android mobile deivces and set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Xbox. “Right now, six companies [CBS, Warner Bros., News Corp, Comcast, Disney, and Viacom] control 90 percent of the TV you watch,” Labes says. “That is about to change.”

ChannelMeter 

ChannelMeter is building a Nielsen-like rating service for organizations that publish videos on YouTube channels. The system pulls data about viewership from YouTube’s servers and presents it in a way that’s more accessible and detailed than YouTube’s own analytics, according to co-founder Eugene Lee. With data on hand about which types of videos perform best by measures such as length, topic, or day of the week, publishers can make better programming decisions, Lee says.

ChannelMeter’s pilot customer, Red Bull, increased its YouTube video subscriber base from 500,000 to 2.5 million during the period it was using the service. “We don’t claim we are directly responsible, but they will tell you that our data was influential in helping to find best practices and refine audience developments,” Lee says co-founder. The startup plans to open its service to other customers next week.

Zeega

Cambridge, MA-born Zeega has built a simple authoring platform that lets journalists, editors, and average Web users remix their own or other publishers’ videos, photos, sound, and other digital materials into interactive stories it calls “Zeegas.” Through the site’s authoring interface, users can browse materials collected from Tumblr, SoundCloud, Flickr, and Gliphy (but not YouTube, for technical reasons) and drag and drop them into personally curated sequences with original superimposed text. Think Storify, but for images and sound rather than just social media updates.

It’s hard to describe Zeegas—you just have to go watch a few of them. Zeegas can be embedded on Tumblr and other publishing platforms and shared via social media , and since all of the materials in a sequence are pulled from their original sites at the time a Zeega is played, there aren’t any copyright hassles to worry about.

The startup was founded by Jesse Shapins and Kara Oehler, and started out as a consulting business and interactive production studio with support from Harvard’s Berkman Center and a Knight News Challenge grant. But after the Zeega platform started to generate interest back in 2011, the team decided to focus on it, and eventually relocated to San Francisco to join Matter. Jake Shapiro calls Zeega “the poster child” for the kind of crossover between community-generated media and business thinking that Matter was created to support.

The Zeega platform—which has been lauded by Buzzfeed is now being used by everyone from authors to musicians to news organizations such as The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and the PBS Newshour—is “not about video the way we’ve thought about it before,” says Shapin. “For the first time, Zeega makes it possible for anyone to create and share immersive audiovisual experiences, changing the way we all tell stories and share ideas.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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