Frames and photography startup Aura raises $26M as app users near 3M and frames sold top 500K • TechCrunch

Aura, a startup founded by early Twitter employees that makes digital frames and photo-sharing apps that can also be used to update those frames, has secured some funding to expand its business as it approaches three million Twitter users. its app and half a million frames sold.

The company has raised $26 million in a debt-equity mix led by the Lago Innovation Fund, money the company is using to boost manufacturing this quarter and invest in plans for 2023.

Not to be confused with the meditation and mental wellness app, nor the cybersecurity company, nor the biotech company of the same name, had previously raised around $13 million in capital from investors (according to PitchBook) which they include Spark Capital, SV Angel, Betaworks and DCVC, as well as a quiet, undisclosed investment by the Chicago-based Levy Family Office (led by businessman Larry Levy).

He hasn’t been looking to raise more equity-based funds, though CEO and co-founder Abdur Chowdhury said he might do something next year, depending on the state of the risk market (it’s been a tough 2021 and investors predict that that is likely to happen). continue for a while, so we’ll see).

Meanwhile, the company has been growing at a rapid pace: 100% year-over-year for at least the last three, with app users going from 1 million in December 2021 to 2 million in September 2022 and on track to reach 3 million in January. Frame sales have totaled around 500,000, with the company’s newest design, the $149 Carver, currently its biggest seller.

Aura frames typically have about four people on average logged in to add images, which creates a kind of network effect, Chowdhury said: Eventually, some of those users get their own frames and build additional networks of contributors who upload images to new devices, and so on. He added that his devices currently collectively display around a billion images to people daily.

The teachings of Twitter

Under new owner and CEO Elon Musk, Twitter’s talent pool has been leaking heavily over the past few weeks through layoffs and resignations, leaving many question marks not only about what happens with Twitter itself, but also between yes: among the thousands. Who is gone, who will play a part in what could be the next chapter? It’s an open question, one that Chowdhury can at least provide an answer by example.

Image Credits: Aura (Opens in a new window)

Chowdhury and his co-founder Eric Jensen (pictured above with Jensen on the left), who is the CTO of Aura, are friends who go back a long way in seeking to use technology to connect people with information and each. The two first worked together years ago at AOL when it was still a major homepage destination trying to compete with rising star Google.

Then, after leaving AOL, along with other former AOL members, Chowdhry and Jensen founded Summize, a search engine that takes a new approach to searching using Internet user-produced content as a guide, eventually training their eyes on a juicy particular data set. , that of the promising social site Twitter.

Summize was, in fact, Twitter’s first search engine, and in 2008 Twitter acquired it to integrate that functionality directly into the platform. Twitter had just 12 employees at the time, and Summize has six, so it was a big deal for both of them.

(Worth reading: Former Twitter CEO and co-founder Ev Williams’ discussion with TC founder Mike Arrington after Arrington initially reported deal rumors. Ev reveals Twitter chose to buy and integrate instead of partnering with another, larger third party to build and power Twitter search. Was it Microsoft? Google? Yahoo!?)

Chowdhury, Jensen, and several others stayed for several years to build early versions of Twitter search and new features such as trending topics: Chowdhury has been described as the father of the very concept of trending, as the person who wrote the first algorithm. to produce trends on Twitter, and to help the company scale its engineering operations as it rapidly added more users and more browsing activity. Chowdhury was the platform’s chief scientific officer and Jensen led search and relevance.

By 2011, most of the Summize team had passed the earnings period and withdrew from the company. It was then that the couple began to think about what comes next.

Chowdhury and Jensen may have gotten out of Twitter, but they weren’t completely out of touch with the concepts that brought them to Twitter in the first place.

Networking concepts (how people connect with each other) are at the core of how Twitter works, and it was something that stuck in their minds. “We started to think that something is missing here,” Chowdhury said in an interview.

They turned their attention to smaller networking experiments, where people share things that are more personal with smaller groups, as opposed to the open nature of Twitter or, indeed, others like Facebook. They weren’t the only ones: the Path app was a notable attempt to flesh out the concept of tight-knit groups, and Facebook itself began adapting the way users could create sharing groups as well.

“But they were all broken in some way,” he said, either for privacy reasons or because of discovery or compromise challenges.

“We recognized that small networks were very fragile,” he said. “Without a power user, the network often falls apart. It is also a challenge to monetize these networks.” At the same time, he added, “smartphones with great cameras were becoming widely adopted. The content of the photos and the sharing between loved ones were being underutilized.”

That’s what led Chowdhury and Jensen to create both software, a photo-sharing app that connected users and their photos, supplemented by a piece of hardware, the frame, to view those photos, but it also surpassed a couple of others. challenges:

“A Wi-Fi-connected frame actually acts as the ‘power user,’ keeping content up-to-date without requiring constant participation or interaction from the network, all with the goal of connecting family members and enjoying the pictures”. And, more importantly, selling a framework means building a monetization pipeline without resorting to advertising and all that data mining that comes with it, which nobody really wants in up-close-and-personal experiences.

“We realized we could build a nice private network for photos captured in the app, but living in a perennial way in the frame that could bring joy,” he said.

The original name of the company was Pushd. Chowdhury said that was because the startup wanted to prevent push notifications to keep people connected, which is prescient when you consider that this is the core of how many apps, including BeReal, remind users to stay tuned. get involved today. Chowdhury added that “a lot of what Pushd learned became what Aura is today.” The startup was renamed prior to the release of the first box in 2016.

Opening the digital shoebox

In these days of tablets and digital home video assistants, it can seem a bit anachronistic to focus on a digital picture frame. After all, they were some of the first digital products to enter the home environment. By 2011, when Aura was taking off, 12 million digital frames had already been sold, representing 15% of all US households.

However, as Chowdhury and Jensen saw it, digital frames quickly hit a wall in terms of their development: not only have smartphones and tablets taken over the experience of taking and consuming digital photos, but Frameworks were clunky and fundamentally disconnected from those smartphones, relying on USB sticks and other means to be updated.

But frames weren’t the only digital relic to hit a wall. Photo libraries have grown exponentially in the broader consumer market. In 2011, there were already some 300 billion digital photos taken in total with phones, prompting a question for the Aura founders: “How do you get all that content back?” Chowdhury asked.

That question has only gotten more nagging: Apple said in September 2022 that more than 3 trillion photos were being taken on iPhones in 2021 alone. The proverbial shoebox of photos we never managed to organize suddenly sounds a bit quaint.

Taken together, the Aura founders saw that there might be an opening in the market for a better framework, one that would work better with the devices now used to capture images, without pulling users in different directions (and different points of view). price) than tablets. do, and facilitating the consumption and enjoyment of the photographs that we and others have taken.

The company is essentially a technological actor.

In between her work, Aura has built her own privacy-focused facial recognition (based on metadata, not the faces themselves) and computer vision algorithms to create groups of intelligent images, found within her apps. He is building better “scanning” technology to capture artwork and other two-dimensional objects that his users might want to see in their frames. And it’s working on ways to potentially add temporary frame image contributors, as well as more sharing between trusted, but not necessarily close, groups within the app that might not be connected to a single frame at all.

“How do you make it easier to collect and share photos, for example, of a wedding?” he asked. “Beyond your close friends and family, it’s about continuing to tell a story, capturing those images and viewing them in your home.”

I found out that Aura currently has several patents, around 50 when issued and pending are counted. But not all of them are related to frames, photo sharing and social networks: several introduced in recent years are related to health and medical surveillance, particularly during pandemics and epidemics.

“This goes back to the Pushd days,” Chowdhury said. Some of the startup’s early work on small networks “had to do with location notifications from people on your private network.” In the case of health care, he said, it could help inform caregivers if an elderly parent did or did not leave home for safety or well-being reasons. “This never became a product that Pushd released and was not used in the creation of Aura, but the team’s initial work and ideas were proprietary, with Covid-19 perhaps being the spur for that, given that the submissions are relatively recent.

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