Jeffrey Martin and Steve Hercher of Prague, Czech Republic reached an important milestone at the end of last year by clinching the first round of funding for their start-up 360Cities.net – a company that promises to revolutionize immersive imagery on the web by building a series of map-based city sites featuring thousands of 360 degree panorama photographs. In one stroke, they accomplished two things: This is the first investment realized by EASY, an EU-supported project under the PRO-INNO Programme aspiring to be a meeting point between European angel investors and innovative entrepreneurs. It’s also the first time in the Czech Republic that an angel group (or business angel network, to use another phrase) has facilitated such an investment.
Jeffrey Martin, an accomplished professional photographer, conceived his innovative idea in 2006 of expanding the potential of panoramic imagery, sometimes called virtual reality (VR) or 360-degree imagery. He saw unexplored possibilities in its applications on the web: by combining the efforts of other expert VR photographers around the world with the power of online mapping, here was a way to provide web visitors a truly immersive experience in viewing tourist destinations, restaurants, hotels, properties and more.
At that time, Jeffrey teamed up with his tech-savvy brother, David Martin, a Princeton and Berkeley graduate currently teaching computer science at Boston College. With Jeffrey in the role of visionary and David in the role of architect, they launched Prague360.com, the first step towards 360 Cities.
Prague360.net, now the flagship site of 360cities.net, provides a rich example of the 360 Cities experience. Google maps and VR imagery give a ground-level interactive view of hundreds of locations in Prague. Virtual visitors to Prague’s Old Town Square can view the Jan Hus monument and then with the mouse seamlessly shift their view and admire the Astronomical Clock. Shifting to the right they see the Kinský Palace and the Týn Cathedral. The interiors of commercial properties are exhibited as well as famous landmarks.
Not content with Prague360.net, Jeffrey understood that the potential of his project lay far beyond a Prague site: he wanted “360 Cities in 360 degrees”. An angel investor or group of angels would be needed to accomplish this feat. At the end of 2006, Jeffrey signed an agreement with the local Angel Investor Association (AIA) to assist in the search for an angel.
AIA was already a member of EASY, or Early Stage Investors Action, an EU project organizing several international forums where two hundred angel investors meet with innovative and idea-rich entrepreneurs in the mind-boggling (to the entrepreneurs) proportion of 10 to 1. Many an entrepreneur can recount how they fought with other nine hungry colleagues over a solitary investor. The first EASY forum was to be held in Helsinki in June 2007, organized by the Finnish company SITRA, and Jeffrey planned to go. At that time Steve Hercher joined the project to provide help in business planning.
The local English-language paper, the Prague Post, published its first interview with Jeffrey on the day candidates to the forum were selected, an auspicious sign of things to come. Jeffrey’s project was chosen.
Altogether 21 skilled and ambitious entrepreneurs battled for the attention and funds of the dozens of private investors in attendance at the Helsinki conference. Investors voted at the end of each pitch assigning marks of 1 (“let’s negotiate tomorrow”), 2 (“drop me an email”) or 3 (“can you come back next year, please?”). Jeffrey received more 1’s and 2’s and fewer 3’s than any other entrepreneur.
The ensuing discussions brought together various investors in several countries into agreement on the terms of the investment, and 360 Cities B.V., a Dutch-registered company, was incorporated in December last year. More than ten EU-based investors are participating in the syndicated deal. A significant role is played by Finnish investor Ari Korhonen and a group of Dutch investors led by Pieter Angenent and Lex de Lange, members of the Dutch network, Zernike Group/Tifan. Also investing is the Prague-based investor Anthony Smith, the first to commit to the deal.
With expert angel backing, the opportunities for 360 Cities are enormous. Watching closely and lending a hand will be AIA, SITRA, Zernike Group/Tifan, and the other EASY partners, hoping that the first deal of this bold angel platform will be a success. The beginnings are promising indeed.