Seattle’s Ground Truth Merges with Boston’s Umber Systems to Become NYC-Based Mobile Intelligence Solutions

7/14/11Follow @curtwoodward

Consumers who gobble up smartphones and tablets are getting revolutionary tools for work and play. An ever-growing forest of app developers is targeting the devices as a juicy new business platform. But for mobile carriers and marketing pros, it’s all about the data—who’s consuming the bandwidth, what they’re doing online, and what else they might buy while they’re there.

As of today, there’s a new company aiming to own that business. Seattle’s Ground Truth and Boston-based Umber Systems are merging to form Mobile Intelligence Solutions. The combined operation will be headquartered in New York, with branch offices in Boston, Seattle, and India.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the company said it has raised $8 million as part of the merger from each startup’s previous investors: North Bridge Venture Partners on the Umber side, and Steamboat Ventures, Voyager Capital, Emergence Capital, and Openair Equity Partners from the Ground Truth camp. Ground Truth had previously raised close to $10 million in equity financing. I couldn’t find a reference to the size of Umber’s previous fundraising, but North Bridge was the only investor listed on its site.

There’s clearly a ton of opportunity in mobile data, with growing numbers of consumers adopting smartphones and tablet computers. Big companies and startups alike are attacking the problem of how to make money out of all that information that’s flowing through those devices.

Ground Truth marketing VP Evan Neufeld says leaders in traditional Web data analysis—names like comScore, Omniture, and Google—have stepped up their game in the mobile arena. But Mobile Intelligence Solutions thinks it has a nice head start on those larger companies.

“One, mobile’s our only business. If comScore doesn’t sell a dime of mobile business, I don’t think it affects their stock price,” says Neufeld (formerly of comScore Mobile). “The other thing is that market research is really a garbage-in, garbage-out business … and we’ve got the biggest, most accurate data source in the U.S.”

Mobile Intelligence Solutions gets data from partnerships with other companies, particularly the network carriers. They’re the gatekeepers and owners of tons of information about mobile consumer behavior, but are looking for help from outsiders like Mobile Intelligence to parse and analyze it.

The two former startups will keep their names as separate brands under the Mobile Intelligence Solutions label. Ground Truth will continue to focus on mobile Web data products for marketers and other “external” customers, while Umber Systems will remain focused on pushing data analysis back to the carriers.

Just what is the scope of that data trove? Neufeld wouldn’t say exactly, but he did add a bit of perspective. Last year, when Ground Truth raised a $7 million Series B round, we reported that it had amassed raw data on about 3 million mobile subscribers. Today, Neufeld says, Ground Truth’s data covers more than 30 million subscribers—and will grow again with the merger.

Ground Truth president and CEO Sterling Wilson will take the same title at Mobile Intelligence Solutions, and plans to relocate to the new company HQ in New York. Umber founder Asa Kalavade will be the CTO and senior vice president of engineering.

Joel Hughes, the mobile industry veteran who has led Umber as CEO for little over a year, plans to leave as part of the merger, Neufeld says. Ground Truth founder and CTO Michael “Luni” Libes will remain in Seattle as chief research officer.

Not spelled out was the exact role for Seattle VC Tom Huseby, a mobile industry guru who has been board chairman at Ground Truth, although Neufield says Huseby will continue to be involved with the new company in some fashion. (Huseby and Wilson are, of course, esteemed members of the “Qpass Mafia,” a group of influential tech industry figures with ties to the former Seattle mobile e-commerce company.)

Neufeld, who was already based in New York, notes that a Big Apple HQ makes sense in two ways: The advertising analytics customers are mostly based in New York, and it puts the head office closer to the carrier-focused side in Boston.

Neufeld sees three big questions looming in the world of mobile data. A big one is how to make money from location data—something that once red-hot startup Foursquare has been thinking hard about recently. Another question mark is just how search will continue to evolve in the mobile arena, and by extension how it blends with the coming wave of mobile payments and near-field communications devices, he says.

On the carrier side, a major problem is how to parcel out all the bandwidth that people are consuming, and how to price it accordingly. Headlines over just the past few days have continued about the coming death knell for unlimited data plans in the U.S., with Verizon moving toward tiered pricing and Sprint starting to experiment with “throttling,” or slowing down speeds for some big data users.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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