Jon Callaghan, who sits on my board and has been my coach in the venture world, often says that the best opportunities are the ones that you know when you see them. His words were ringing in my ears when I first met João Barros for coffee in San Francisco in June of this year. João is the co-founder and chief executive of Veniam, the newest member of True Ventures’ family. True is leading a $4.9 million Series A round of funding with participation from Union Square Ventures, Cane Ventures, and a few private investors. I represent True on the board of directors.
What is Veniam?
Veniam is a company that has developed a full stack to enable the internet of moving things. By connecting cars, trucks, buses, taxis, and all other vehicles to the internet, Veniam helps create citywide Wi-Fi-based mesh networks that allow both humans and machines to communicate via the network. João co-founded the company with Robin Chase (the co-founder of Zipcar), Susana Sargento, and Roy Russell (Zipcar’s founding CTO in Porto, Portugal). The company has recently moved to North America, and João is already growing its operations from its new Mountain View, California, offices.
Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson introduced me to João after a long, spirited discussion about network neutrality, new models of networks, and policies that will influence the future of the internet. As we walked back to our office (aka my favorite cafe), he said, “You should talk to this guy in Portugal that my partner Brad [Burnham] has been in touch with. He has some interesting ideas.” An email introduction with João followed, and we were soon talking to each other via Skype. He quickly came to San Francisco, and we met for coffee on the weekend and then again the next day. João likes to talk: It is his super power. And here we are.
There are multiple reasons, but the primary one is the founders and their passion for the company they are building, a dedication that True has founded its business on. On a more personal level, I have a rather simple approach to evaluating opportunities: I look for proprietary technologies that use the power of the cloud and data as fuel to offer an intelligent answer to a very real problem that affects or will affect millions of people. Also, I love networks, communication, and real, fundamental technologies: They bring about great companies.
But enough about my lens. Let’s focus on the fundamental shift occurring around us: connectedness, which is happening as a result of us putting a digital heartbeat into everything that till recently was inanimate. I have written about this in the past:
“Just as the marriage of the steam engine with the wheel opened up a world of possibilities, the marriage of microprocessors (everywhere) and network connections (everywhere) is opening up new vistas for the technology industry. The power of a computer in your pocket is such that it impacts how you find places to congregate and consume — from food to wine to clothes to even cars. Every day, you make decisions, based on what the iPhone (or Android or whatever) brings back from the web.”
Being a broadband nerd, I have also been wondering what will happen when our cars connect to the internet. By some measures there will be around 150 million connected cars by 2020. How will we manage not only those cloud connections but also the connectivity among these vehicles as they move around on the road? How will connected cars overcome the communication challenge of dropped connections to our already overloaded cellular networks? João and I discussed these questions and many others as we drank espresso.
The growing popularity of smartphones and tablets has made the internet more mobile. It has created many new opportunities and also many headaches for the networks. The scale of our challenges has increased infinitely. And yet this is a smaller challenge when you think about the internet of moving things.
To understand the complexity, imagine a broadband Wi-Fi hotspot that is constantly moving within the network, disappearing and reappearing in another part of the network. But at the same time it can provide access to client devices as if nothing happened, with the ease of blinking an eye. How do we create this hotspot? That’s a hard problem, one that takes a complete system to solve: You need innovative hardware and lots of specialized software.
When we start to connect moving things, inserting a SIM card, for example, in every car, bus, truck, ship, or train doesn’t really help and in fact amplifies the challenges. It is harder to provide a good, true broadband speed, but it is also harder from a management point of view. Imagine being asked to double or triple the number of mobile subscribers in a year. Surely shipping more SIM cards cannot do it. The solution to this complex problem demands a deep, fundamental shift in technology.
Enter Veniam. Its founders have helped facilitate more than a decade’s worth of research at the world’s finest R&D labs at premier universities (MIT and CMU, for example). Broadband and mobility are two of the deepest technological areas of interest in networking. We are thrilled that Veniam is pioneering products in an emerging market that leverages both.
Veniam has developed a vehicle onboard multi-network device called NetRider and has married that to its cloud-based platform. NetRider has a smart connection manager that decides the best wireless technology — cellular or Wi-Fi — to use at each point in time to connect to the network. The Wi-Fi connections are essentially low-cost but powerful points of presence distributed around the city, often on utility poles, traffic signals, or apartments that feed the internet into the connected vehicles. The cloud platform manages the network and connectivity of the moving vehicles.
Porto(al) to the future
Veniam has shown the path to the future with its technology. Last month I visited Porto (João’s hometown and the company’s base of operations) to see its idea of the future come to life. There are 600 connected vehicles (including commuter buses), and they are all moving hotspots. Nearly 73 percent of bus riders can connect to the internet within milliseconds. I was riding in a taxi and would often be connected to the internet when I was within proximity of a connected bus.
There is so much potential in the space. For example, a city’s connected garbage bins could send a burst that carries the “bin full” message to the garbage collection agency’s offices whenever a connected vehicle comes within range. The result could be fewer garbage trucks on the road, which is not such a bad thing.
In controlled areas with many vehicles and moving machines where cellular coverage is very poor, such as seaports and airports, Veniam’s approach is particularly useful. One of its earliest adopters has been the port of Porto, which has been using Veniam’s networking technology and software to envelope the metal-rich port in a Wi-Fi mesh, which allows employees and vehicles stay connected with one another and the port’s operational center. Other seaports are looking to follow suit.
My enthusiasm aside, Veniam is a small company with grand ambitions. In other words, we have our work cut out for us. Veniam is just getting started, and it needs all the support it can get. Get in touch if you think you can use its technology or have a desire to work for the company. Personally, I am just glad that João and his company are part of the True family: I get to see the next interpretation of the network being built, up close and personal.
PS: Here is a list of my investments on behalf of True and my two tiny angel investments.