After Decades of R&D, Bose Amps Up VC Deals in AR, Wearables, Wellness

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 3/22/18, 1:14 pm. See below.] For the first 50 years of its existence, Bose Corporation invested primarily in in-house research and development to produce its lineup of high-end headphones, speakers, and other audio technologies.

Bose’s Steve Romine says that’s still an important focus for the Framingham, MA-based company, which has been awarded hundreds of patents for advances in technologies such as noise-canceling headphones. But in the past few years, Bose has also started to look outside its walls for other sources of innovation.

The privately held company made its first investment in a startup in late 2015, and last year it officially launched a corporate venture capital arm, Bose Ventures, says Romine (pictured above), the group’s managing director. Bose Ventures has invested in eight companies so far, he says, which are working on products and services such as advanced microphones, podcast curation, wearable healthcare devices, and meditation tech.

“The startup community is a great place where there is a lot of innovation happening,” says Romine, who has also served as Bose’s chief intellectual property lawyer and its director of corporate development, according to his LinkedIn profile. “We’ve stood up this venture arm to invest in the very best startups that are innovating in areas that we think really complement where Bose is heading and complement Bose’s strengths. … We’re less concerned about what the hot trends are in the VC space.”

Bose Ventures is ramping up its investment activities at a time when more large companies are diving into the venture capital game. Last year, 186 new corporate venture groups around the world made their first investment, a record annual number, according to CB Insights research.

Given that Bose is a well-known global brand and one of New England’s leading consumer tech companies, it’s worth exploring the startup investments it’s making to see where the business could be headed.

Initially, Bose Ventures targeted startups working on connected audio technologies, wearable devices, and health and wellness products. This month, Bose Ventures added augmented reality (AR) to the list, as Bose unveiled a prototype of AR glasses at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX. Bose Ventures also said it plans to invest $50 million in startups building apps, services, or other technologies that enhance Bose’s AR products. (The $50 million is only a portion of the funds that Bose has allocated for startup investments, but Romine declined to disclose the total size of Bose Ventures’ funding pot.) [Removed description of Bose as Bose Ventures’ “parent” in this paragraph and elsewhere. A spokesman says the venture capital arm is a group within Bose, not a subsidiary or separate entity.—Eds.]

AR boosts a person’s experience of the surrounding environment through computer-generated elements, like images superimposed on a screen, that blend the real world with the virtual one. The field has generated hype and received a lot of investment in recent years, but it has yet to produce many home-run consumer products. The Pokémon Go mobile game is probably the best-known hit, but there have been some big flops, too—think the original incarnation of Google Glass.

Bose’s take on AR revolves not around visuals, but—you guessed it—sound. The company says it has developed a tiny, “wafer-thin acoustics package” that can be built into glasses, headphones, helmets, and other items which, when connected with a smartphone app, enable wearers to listen to music or hear helpful information about their surroundings. The app would know the person’s location based on the phone’s GPS, and it would be able to tell the direction the person is facing because the wearable has a built-in compass, Romine says. Embedded sensors and microphones would allow the user to call up content by tapping the wearable, speaking a command, or giving a nod or other head gesture, Bose says.

The decision to add a layer of audio, and not video, to the perception of one’s surroundings is “certainly a different take on AR than what’s been done in the past,” Romine says.

“It’s a way to maintain your situational awareness,” he continues. It keeps “your ears open and your eyes up and allows you to focus on the world around you, whereas video puts more things between your eyes and the world.”

Romine says a person might configure the wearable device to play different types of musical genres based on various head gestures, or perhaps it would automatically play a workout playlist when he or she enters the gym. Travelers could use the product to quickly pull up recommended dishes at a highly rated restaurant, Romine suggests. Or if you’re at a hotel in a foreign country, it could tell you how to ask to book a room in the native language, he says.

Like any new product built with emerging technology, Bose might struggle to find uses that consumers find compelling or better than the status quo. But Romine says the early feedback from South by Southwest has been “positive” and Bose employees “feel encouraged.”

And part of the idea with setting aside $50 million for AR investments is that Bose Ventures aims to incentivize tech developers to come up with more ideas and create new experiences for the Bose AR platform, Romine says.

Of the eight investments Bose Ventures has made so far, Romine says two have been acquired by Bose: Hush and Sync Project. Both of those startups fit into Bose’s interest in health and wellness. San Diego-based Hush was developing “smart” noise-masking earbuds designed to help users sleep. Bose incorporated that technology into a prototype product, and it raised more than $450,000 from interested consumers in an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Meanwhile, Boston-based Sync Project has been studying the potential therapeutic effects of music to try and develop personalized treatments. Neither deal’s purchase price was disclosed.

Bose Ventures’ other portfolio companies include Vesper, Signature Medical, Core Wellness, Qleek, Embr Labs, and RadioPublic.

Romine’s team typically cuts checks of between $100,000 and $1 million, although it can go higher, he says. It focuses on Series A deals, but sometimes invests at earlier or later stages, he says.

Although a quarter of Bose Ventures’ investments have ended up being absorbed by Bose, Romine says he doesn’t expect that to become the norm.

“We’re not making an investment in these companies necessarily with an eye towards acquiring them,” he says. “We want to establish a significant commercial relationship” between the startups and Bose, which might take the form of licensing their technology or jointly developing new products, for example.

One of the knocks against corporate venture capital groups is they tend to come and go, Romine says. But he says his team has strong support from Bose’s upper management, and the company is committed to the effort.

“Bose tends to be a company that when we do something, we stick with stuff for a while,” Romine says.