Nathan Eagle was a Fulbright scholar from MIT, teaching at the University of Nairobi, when he had his “aha moment.”
Specifically, Eagle was teaching a mobile phone programming curriculum at the school when he and his students built an SMS system that enabled rural nurses to text information about low blood supply levels to centralized blood banks. (Earlier, the nurses depended on someone who drove from hospital to hospital, reporting back who needed what.)
The system earned Eagle praise and a photo in the local papers. Unfortunately, the nurses almost immediately stopped using the system. The reason: the onerous costs of text messaging. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was basically asking them to take a pay cut,” says Eagle.
Indeed, in many countries, including India, Brazil, and Indonesia, one of the main barriers to connectivity is the crippling cost of data. Facebook reminded the world of this problem when its India-focused Free Basics program — designed to offer free Internet access to certain sites only — was recently banned by India’s telecom regulator, which ruled that the practice of charging different prices to different customers is not acceptable.
Now, Facebook’s fumble looks well-timed for Eagle’s company, Jana, which has been quietly providing free, unrestricted Internet access in emerging markets.
How it works: through an Android app by Jana called mCent, users agree to immersive advertising experiences, like spending five to 10 minutes using Amazon’s app, in exchange for 20 to 50 megabytes of data.
Another advertising client of Jana’s, the popular, India-based music streaming service Saavn, gives customers 10 free songs that they can listen to any time they want. The idea is to give those users a sense that their phone is much more than a two-way communication device; it’s a music player, too.
Little wonder Eagle’s 85-person, Boston-based outfit seems to be taking off fast, even while it’s not a young company. In fact, it took seven years to build out of Jana’s infrastructure, a project that ended in 2014, says Eagle. Now Jana is integrated into the back-end billing systems of 311 mobile operators across 93 countries, and Eagle says 30 million people have enjoyed free internet care of its partnership agreements.
Audaciously — though not unconvincingly — Eagle argues that Jana can provide free connectivity to up to 4.5 billion phone numbers, which is the sum total of everyone with a SIM card from one of its mobile operator partners.
Investors certainly seem excited about that possibility. Jana is today announcing $57 million in Series C funding led by new investor Verizon Ventures, with participation from earlier investors Spark Capital and Publicis Groupe.
The round brings Jana’s funding to $95 million; it also sees Tim Armstrong, the CEO of TechCrunch parent AOL, joining its board as an advisor.
We’d happily play that down that appointment, owing to perceived conflicts of interest. But Eagle says Armstrong’s involvement was key for him, considering Jana’s ambitions. “We have a world-class engineering team, but the heart of our business depends on advertising. We need to start building our sales organization, and Armstrong basically pioneered digital advertising, dating back to his early days at Google.” (For those who don’t know, Armstrong spent roughly a decade at Google before joining AOL, acting as president of American operations and looking after both advertising sales and relationships with publishers.)
Maybe Armstrong is key. Certainly, Jana will need all the help it can get, with competitors like Google and Facebook to battle as both tech giants look harder at emerging markets for growth.
For now, however, the company’s prospects seems pretty bright regardless.
Asked if Jana has ever been profitable, Eagle says it has been during “some quarters.” Asked about the company’s margins, he says, “We can drive a lot of revenue. You’d be surprised.”