Mapbox raises $164M to expand its location platform to cars, VR, AR and Asia

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Location and mapping been two of the key features underpinning a wide array of smartphone services. Now a startup that has been at the center of building those location services for mobile devices has picked up a large round of funding to take its tech to newer frontiers in hardware, specifically in automotive and virtual / augmented reality. Mapbox, a company that competes against Google and Here to work with companies like Airbnb, Instacart, Snap, and MasterCard to build maps to power their services, is today announcing that it has raised $164 million in funding.

The Series C round takes the total amount raised by Mapbox to about $228 million. Mapbox is not disclosing its valuation, but at its last round (in 2015) it was valued at around $203 million according to PitchBook. This means that at a minimum it’s valued at around $370 million with this round, but I’m guessing it’s closer to $400 million – $500 million post money with this latest investment. We’ll continue to ask around.

This is the latest investment to come out of the Softbank Vision Fund — the monster funding vehicle from Japan’s tech giant that has been investing hundreds of millions since last summer into growth rounds for several other businesses. Others in this round include existing investors Foundry Group, DFJ Growth, DBL Partners, and Thrive Capital, who were all involved in the startup’s last round of $52.6 million two years ago.

Mapbox’s business to date has seen the company move into dozens of apps and sites, providing an open source-based alternative (initially based on Open Street Maps) to more proprietary offerings such as those from Google, Here (once owned by Nokia and now owned by a car consortium) and TomTom. To date, there are some 300 million people using services that are powered by Mapbox.

But with smartphone growth slowing, many are looking at what the next frontier of location will be, which might not involve working with maps per se but requiring location-based data to power other services and devices across the Internet of Things.

Mapbox has been one of them. Last year, the company made its first foray into automotive with the launch of Mapbox Drive, an SDK for autonomous cars. Eric Gunderson, the startup’s founder and CEO, tells us looking beyond smartphones for other applications for maps and location technology was one of the reasons why the company clicked with Softbank.

“About five minutes into the meeting with Masayoshi Son, I knew Softbank should be our partners,” he told TechCrunch. “We didn’t focus on ‘mapping’ directly — rather we discussed the how real-time location data will flow from decentralized networks of low powered mobile sensors that are now inside everything.”

In addition to looking at new areas in IoT, Mapbox plans to use the funding to build out a new automotive unit, which will see Mapbox’s location tech tailored for in-car navigation and autonomous driving systems and working with computer vision systems.

Another area will be working more in gaming and “mixed” reality, for example growing the company’s work with the Unity SDK. “So much of the map is going to fade into the background,” Gundersen said.

Partly by way of Softbank’s reach into Asia, Mapbox also plans to expand there.

“The energy in China is amazing – you’re going to see us radically grow that team. I expect to be in China every other month – China and South East Asia are huge for transportation,” he said.

All these moves will put Mapbox into an interesting competitive landscape in the years ahead. While the startup has carved a place for itself to date largely in maps for web sites and apps, the future will see it potentially moving away from mapping as an end point and working more with location and navigation data that will power other kinds of applications. VR and AR are two cases in point, where the graphic interfaces may need mapping to work but no maps to interact with services.

“So much of the map is going to fade into the background,” Gundersen said.

Moves into areas like automotive will, however, also put the company into quite crowded waters. Companies like Here, which is owned by a consortium of car makers, will be a direct competitor in automotive, alongside Mapbox’s existing competition from those that control the platforms — specifically Google and Apple.

Meanwhile, areas like AR and VR, while they remain interesting, will also take a long time before they produce interesting dividends as business areas. Those lengthy business cycles are already proving to be too much for some, such as Nokia, which today announced that it would discontinue its work on VR cameras; and Intel’s retrenching from the market.

“Location data is central and mission critical to the development of the world’s most exciting technologies, from autonomous transportation to robotics through to AR and VR,” said Rajeev Misra, CEO of SoftBank Investment Advisors, in a statement. “Mapbox has a unique platform using decentralized, anonymized sensors to map the world live. By investing in Mapbox, we are investing in the foundational infrastructure for the next stage of the Information Revolution.”