“2015 will be the year of virtual reality” says investor Mike Rothenberg. But fragmentation in the nascent industry means VR hardware, software, and content startups need to team up for demos. So Rothenberg Ventures today launched a VR accelerator called River to provide a shared office and $100,000 investments to 10 startups.
The two-year-old fund that’s ranked amongst the top performing VCs has also assembled an impressive array of mentors from Dropbox, Zynga, Mozilla, and VR pioneers like Sixense and AltspaceVR for the River accelerator. “We saw there’s a massive need to bring a community space and mentorship to VR because it hasn’t yet hit mainstream but it’s about to” says Rothenberg. “By getting them in the same room, we can move the industry forward.”
Rothenberg hasn’t finalized the terms of the accelerator’s investments but tells me he’ll look to Y Combinator’s model for guidance, implying the startups may have to give up a sizable 7% of their equity to join. Applications are open now through January with rolling interviews, and the class will be picked by the beginning of February.
You can take a Matterport-powered virtual tour of the Rothenberg Ventures office where the River startups will work below:
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“It’s taken 25 years for the VR pieces to come together” Rothenberg tells me. At 28, the Stanford and Harvard business school grad started his own $5 million fund. By buddying up to founders often closer to his age than other VCs, and promising hands-on help, his fund has quickly built a budding portfolio that includes 3D VR modeling startup Matterport and VR browser AltspaceVR.
From its investments in the VR industry, Rothenberg learned “The hardware is finally here. Low latency head tracking, high screen resolution, the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR. It’s consumer ready” he tells me.
In the River manifesto, Rothenberg writes “VR is a technology that will transform every industry over the next decade or two, just as the Internet was nascent twenty years ago but now is ubiquitous.” It’s time to build some real businesses in virtual reality.
The problem is that a lot of founders in the space are better with the tech than the rigors of running a company. The accelerator and its mentors could help. The verticalized model has worked for PCH’s Highway 1 hardware accelerator, and Y Combinator has found a lot of benefits from keeping startups in close proximity.
There’ll still be room to breathe, though, as Rothenberg has a solid 8,000 square office in SF’s SOMA district that the River accelerator’s portfolio will share. Rothenberg hopes the physical space will “act as a magnet for our mentors”, so they can help the startups with everything from business development to design.
Apart, it’s tough to show off their technology. But portfolio companies like a headset maker, a VR app store, and a game could collaborate to demonstrate what they’ve created
Rothenberg River’s mentors will add to the connective tissue, and include heavy hitters from across the tech and VR industry. There’s Mailbox founder and Dropbox head of design Gentry Underwood, Zynga VP of Games Maureen Fan, Leap Motion Founder and CTO David Holz, and Mafia Wars founder and serial entrepreneur Roger Dickey. On the VR side, mentors include Sixense VR remote controller founder and CEO Amir Rubin, Mozilla VR researcher Joshua Carpenter, SVVR meetup leader Karl Krantz, plus founders from Matterport and AltspaceVR .
In May, River’s startups will get their own Demo Day of sorts, presenting live demos at Rothenberg Ventures’ “Founders Field Day” event at the AT&T Park baseball field in San Francisco. If the program goes well, there’ll be second River class assembled down the line. But Rothenberg may see increased competition too. Big name accelerators like Y Combinator and 500 Startups may try to court the same companies as they warm up to the industry’s potential.
While Rothenberg says this next year is a huge one for VR, he believes “the next decade will be big for VR too”. The tech might conjure fictional worlds before our eyes, but it’s about to have a very factual impact on the world.