Mapbox Raises $52.6M Led By DFJ To Be The “Map Layer” For All Apps

With questions swirling over who may end up buying Nokia’s mapping division Here, a startup trying to disrupt it and other big boys like Google has raised some major funding. Mapbox, a developer of customizable maps used by third-party apps like Foursquare, Pinterest, Mapquest and 16,000 others, has raised $52.55 million in a Series B round of funding. The company claims that it’s one of the biggest rounds ever in the world of mapping and location-based startups.

The round was led by DFJ Growth with participation also from existing investors Foundry GroupDBL Partners, Thrive Capital, the Pritzker Group, former Goldman Sachs president Jon Winkelried and Promus Ventures all also chipped in.

The news comes at a pretty recent and fast moment of growth for Mapbox — “an insane two years,” in the words of Eric Gundersen, Mapbox’s very enthusiastic CEO and founder.

The company, founded in Washington D.C. in 2010, was essentially bootstrapped at first, barring a small injection from the Knight Foundation, until 2013, when it raised a modest $10 million from the Foundry Group.

With an office in San Francisco, it’s been quietly growing, adding thousands of developers, including several high profile names like Foursquare and Pinterest, to its list of users and also making some key hires from the mapping departments of its much larger competitors. It also recently released an SDK to make its customizable maps more easily embeddable in iOS apps, seizing on the fact that Apple has not really been able to provide such a feature to developers, not least because it has been trying to find its own way in maps for the last couple of years.

Unlike companies like Google, Nokia’s Here and TomTom, Mapbox does not make products that it offers directly to consumers, meaning it has no agenda to compete against its developer customers, who pay Mapbox based on usage.

“The last thing I would do is call us a mapping company,” Gundersen said. “We are making the building blocks for a platform for developers to put location and maps into their own applications.”

Randy Glein, a partner at DFJ Growth who is joining the board, agrees. “I think it’s important to have an independent platform like Mapbox,” he noted. “I think the market needs and wants a platform and that’s why there is an opportunity here. Not everyone wants to integrate someone else’s map, and here we have something that is powerful and flexible and aggregates and overlays data.”

While a lot of Mapbox’s growth may have been under the radar, it’s been taking place amidst a rising importance for digital maps in general. The boom in smartphones and other connected, unanchored devices like watches and cars has created market and consumer demand for location-based services to run on this hardware.

Maps essentially underpin how a huge number of apps work — whether it is navigating yourself from point A to B, or social networking and photo sharing, or finding a shop near you, or checking out the weather, or getting something delivered — and so demand for accurate and customizable data is only growing.

Mapbox’s original business model was to create customizable layers on top of raw data that came from OpenStreetMap, the non-profit foundation dedicated to providing open sourced geospatial data, which is also used by the likes of Apple and others. Over time, Mapbox has been working on ways of enhancing and growing that data, and that is part of the reason for this very large round of funding.

“The main focus of the raise is growing our tech and global teams out, but also to buy strategic data assets,” Gundersen tells me. That will include more accurate geocoding data and new satellite imagery that it can integrate into its own larger mapping database.

Part of the evolution in satellite technology will mean more data, too. “We’re excited to be doing more business with major satellite companies, but we’re also excited by smaller satellite companies coming on. There is a ton of rich data and now is a great time to buy because of the number of sources out there. There will be a flood of imagery we can buy so being capitalised is a super strategic move now.”