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 funding to expand its business as it nears three million users of its application and 1 million frames sold (it is now at 997k).
The company raised $26 million in a mix of debt and equity led by the Lago Innovation Fund, money the company is using to boost manufacturing this quarter and invest in 2023 plans.
Aura — 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 equity funding from investors ( per PitchBook) that include Spark Capital, SV Angel, Betaworks and DCVC, as well as a quiet, undisclosed investment from the Chicago-based Levy Family Office (led by entrepreneur Larry Levy).
It has not sought to raise more equity, although CEO and co-founder Abdur Chowdhury has said he may do something in the coming year, pending the state of the capital market. -risk (2021 has been a tough year and investors are predicting it may continue for a while, we’ll see).
Meanwhile, the company has grown rapidly – 100% year-over-year for at least the last three, with app users growing from 1 million in December 2021 to 2 million by September. 2022 and on track to reach 3 million in January. Frame sales have reached nearly a million, with the company’s newest design, the $149 Carver, currently its top seller.
Aura executives typically have around four people on average logged in to add images, which creates a sort of network effect, Chowdhury said: Eventually some of those users get their own executives and create additional networks of contributors. uploading images to new devices, and so on. He added that his devices currently collectively display some 1 billion images to people every day.
Lessons from Twitter
Under new owner and CEO Elon Musk, Twitter’s talent pool has leaked heavily over the past two weeks through both layoffs and resignations, leaving plenty of question marks not just about what’s going on. with Twitter itself, but also on each other: among the thousands who have left, who will play a role in what could be the next chapter? This is an open question, to which Chowdhury can provide at least one answer for example.
Picture credits: Will have (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 researching the use of technology to connect people with information and between them. The first two worked together years ago at AOL when it was still a major landing page destination trying to contend with Google’s rising star.
Then, after leaving AOL, along with other AOL alumni, Chowdhry and Jensen founded Summize, a search engine that took a new approach to search using user-generated content as a guide, which eventually formed its eyes on one particular juicy dataset. , that of the future social site Twitter.
Summize was actually Twitter’s first search engine, and in 2008 Twitter acquired it to integrate this functionality directly into the platform. Twitter only had 12 employees at the time, and Summize has six, so it was a big deal for both.
(Read: Former Twitter CEO and Co-Founder Ev Williams chatting with TC Founder Mike Arrington after Arrington initially reported rumors about the deal. Ev reveals Twitter opted out of the deal. buy and integrate rather than partner with another larger third party to build and power Twitter’s search. Was it Microsoft? Google? Yahoo!?)
Chowdhury, Jensen and several others stayed for several years to create early versions of Twitter’s 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 help the company scale its engineering operations by rapidly adding more users and more browsing activity. Chowdhury was the platform’s scientific director and Jensen led research and relevance.
By 2011, most of the Summize team had gone through their earn-out period and left the company. It was then that the couple began to think about what was next.
Chowdhury and Jensen may have left Twitter, but they weren’t completely disengaged from the concepts that brought them to Twitter in the first place.
Networking concepts – how people connect with each other – are central to how Twitter works, and it’s something that has stuck in their minds. “We started to think there was something missing here,” Chowdhury said in an interview.
They’ve turned their attention to smaller networking experiences, where people share things that are more personal with smaller groups, unlike the open nature of Twitter, or even others like Facebook. They weren’t alone – the Path app was a notable attempt to build around 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 one way or another,” he said, either for privacy reasons or discovery or engagement issues.
“We recognized that small networks were very fragile,” he said. “Without a power user, the network usually collapses. It’s also a challenge to monetize these networks.” At the same time, he added, “smartphones with great cameras were widely adopted. Photo content and sharing between loved ones were underutilized.”
This is what led Chowdhury and Jensen to create the two pieces of software – a photo-sharing application that connected users and their photos together – complete with a hardware element, the frame, to display those photos, but also lift a few others challenges:
“A Wi-Fi-connected executive effectively acts as a ‘power user’ – keeping content fresh without requiring constant network engagement or interaction – all with the goal of connecting family members and enjoy the pictures.” And above all, selling a framework means creating a stream of monetization without resorting to advertising and all the data mining that comes with it, which no one really wants in personal and close experiences.
“We realized we could create a nice private network for photos captured in the app, but live persistently in the frame that could bring joy,” he said.
The original company name was Pushd. Chowdhury said it was because the startup wanted to bypass push notifications to keep people connected – prescient given that it’s at the heart of how many apps, including BeReal, remind users to engage. today. Chowdhury added that “a lot of Pushd’s learnings blossomed into what Aura is today.” The startup was rebranded before the first framework launched in 2016.
Open digital shoebox
In the age of tablets and home video screen PDAs, it might seem a bit anachronistic to focus on a digital picture frame. They were, after all, among the first digital products to enter the home environment. In 2011, when Aura started, there were already 12 million digital frames sold, or 15% of all homes in the United States.
Yet, according to Chowdhury and Jensen, digital frames were quickly hitting a wall in terms of development: Not only were smartphones and tablets taking over the experience of taking and consuming digital photos, but the frames were clunky and fundamentally disconnected from these smartphones, relying on USB drives and other means to update.
But frames weren’t the only digital relic to hit a wall. Photo libraries have grown exponentially across the consumer market. In 2011, there were already some 300 billion digital photos taken in total on phones, prompting a question for the founders of Aura: “How do you get back to all that content?” asked Chowdhury.
This question has only become more persistent: Apple said in September 2022 that more than 3 trillion photos were taken on iPhones in 2021 alone. The proverbial shoebox of photos we never get to organizing suddenly seems a bit quaint.
Putting this together, the founders of Aura saw that there could be an opening in the market for a better frame, which would work better with the devices currently used to capture images, without pulling users in different directions ( and different prices) that tablets do, and making it easier to consume and appreciate the photos we and others have taken.
The company at its core is a technology player.
Among its work, Aura has built its own privacy-focused facial recognition (based on metadata, not the faces themselves) and computer vision algorithms to create smart image clusters, which sit in its applications. It builds better “digitizing” technology to capture artwork and other two-dimensional objects that its users might want to see displayed in their frames. And he’s working on ways to potentially add temporary framework image contributors, as well as more sharing between trusted, but not necessarily close, groups within the app who might not be connected to them at all. one frame,
“How do you make it easier to collect and share photos of, say, a wedding,” he asked. “Beyond your close friends and family, it’s about continuing to tell a story, capturing those images and seeing them in your home.”
I found that Aura is currently sitting on a number of patents, around 50 if you count those issued and pending. But not all of them are related to frames, photo sharing and social networks: several filed in recent years are related to health and medical monitoring, particularly during pandemics and epidemics.
“It goes back to Pushd’s time,” Chowdhury said. Some of the startup’s early work on small networks “had to do with location notifications for people on your private network.” In the case of health care, he said, it could help inform carers if an elderly relative has/has not left their home for safety/welfare reasons. “It never became a product that Pushd launched and was not used in the creation of Aura, but the team’s early work and ideas were patented, Covid-19 possibly being the l sting, since the deposits are relatively recent.
(Updated with more recent frame sales figures.)