The Right Time to Invest in VR, with MetaVRse’s Alan Smithson and Alex Colgan

Avid listeners will have noticed a few weeks without a podcast – that’s because Alan’s been hard at work behind-the-scenes building capital for several MetaVRse projects, including the MetaVRse Engine. This gave Alan a chance to reflect on the investment landscape of 2020, and is joined by VP of Marketing Alex Colgan to discuss the new normal that COVID has ushered into the VC world.

Alan: Welcome to the XR for Business podcast with your host, Alan Smithson. Today, we have a very special episode. We’re going to be talking about the investment landscape of virtual and augmented reality as it pertains to investment in startups, companies going public. What is the investment landscape look like between now and the next few years? How are things going to be funded and what can we expect from the markets in terms of returns? And what can investors really count on to drive those returns as high as possible? Today, I’m joined by the MetaVRse VP of Marketing, our wonderful Alex Colgan. He’s going to be joining me today and he’s going to be interviewing *me* today.

Alex: Hey.

Alan: Hey, what’s up, Alex? Fun fact about Alex: he also lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Or near Halifax. He’s in the eastern part of Canada. So, Alex, thanks for joining me on the show today.

Alex: Canadian born and bred. Glad to be taking over the reins today. Thanks for having me on. And, yeah, let’s flip it around.

Alan: It’s really interesting, Alex, before we get started I have to really just punctuate a couple of things. Over the last few years, there has been an enormous amount of capital invested into virtual and augmented reality startups, in the hundreds of millions, billions of dollars. And it almost feels like we are going through this kind of winter, where investments have dried up in the area. So I’m really excited to talk about that, because I believe that as much as we’re going into physical winter in Canada, I believe that we’re going into a beautiful spring with regards to the investment landscape of this technology. So I’m really excited to dig into it today.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Bad economies are often some of the best times to invest, and there are also some of the best times to build a startup. COVID has had everybody scrambling over the past six months, and trying to identify the best path forward for the future. As a result of that, we’ve seen a lot of different sectors have been getting shaken up as a result. What are some of the biggest disruptions that we’ve seen over the past six months in some of these areas?

Alan: Well, I think the major one is that with regards to investment, everybody just closed their wallets. COVID came and people went, “OK, there’s so much uncertainty, just stop everything.” And so pretty much all investment across all sectors dried up in March, and basically hasn’t really come back until you were starting to see funding rounds happen now in September. And I believe this will continue October-November. Now we find ourselves in a time where there’s actually a lot of fresh capital sitting on the sidelines that needs to be deployed. And if it’s not deployed, it’s losing money. So you have a ton of new startups on the market as well. We have a platform called xrcollaboration.com, and there’s been over 70 startups that have created XR collaboration tools that allow you to go in VR, go into AR glasses, and communicate with people around the world. And not only if you have the VR and AR glasses, but there’s new opportunities around using 2D screens like computers to navigate these 3D worlds, almost like Second Life, but kind of Second Life 2.0, if you would. And this is giving a huge opportunity for investors. There’s a company called VirBELA and they have done really well. Their market caps over $3-billion right now. And they’ve just done really, really well with creating this new experience of moving around socially in a 3D space. And then if you take things like Unreal Engine, they’re doing concerts on their Fortnite platform. So instead of playing a video game and shooting everybody, you’re enjoying a concert by Trevor Scott or whoever. So there’s these great opportunities where 3D scenes and 3D in general is being used in ways we didn’t really contemplate before. So I think there’s a huge boom there. And then you’re also seeing a couple public companies. Unity Technologies just went public.

Alex: Huge news.

Alan: Huge. They raised a billion dollars in one day. Their evaluation went from about $6-billion last year to over $13-billion as of today. So they went public on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker U. I think there’s a couple of things. One is that there’s the investment landscape in kind of startups and smaller check sizes have really contracted. But I think the public markets have expanded. The US Fed has dumped or created $3-trillion and put it into the economy. So that does have a trickle down effect with with regards to the stock market.

Alex: Speaking with some investor friends of mine, one of the things that jumped out to me, especially in the first few months of the pandemic and the shutdown, was that many of them identified issues with travel, issues with getting connected with startups or organizations that they might want to work with. Investors really rely a lot on their gut and whether or not they feel they can trust startup founders, as they’re ramping up their platforms or going to market. A lot of that emotional connection is really something that — especially the senior investors, the ones who have been in the game for decades — are really, really good at, and have been hindered as a result. Are we seeing people be able to adjust, or are we finding with restrictions loosening up that some of these more organic conversations are beginning to happen again?

Alan: Well, I think what we’re seeing pretty simply is that people are just — like every other type of the business or part of business — people just moved on Zoom and continued the conversation. And what I think we’re seeing, yes, it’s hard to have a firm handshake and look somebody in the eyes, but this is the new normal. And so we have to deal with it. And in doing so, I think what this will afford investors a new luxury, actually, one where they can invest wider than they normally would, in geographic terms. They can see more deal flow in a very short amount of time, using conference calls. And for the entrepreneurs, they don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on plane tickets to fly around to go meet with investors. I think it’s a lot more efficient in the long run. And really, there’s been a lot of documentation around the bias that is created when you have face to face meetings, when you’re actually looking at the person, it can create a bias that — right or wrong — it just is a bias. And so by being more analytical about investments, I think there’ll be a long term benefit in the fact that they’re not making gut decisions based on somebody they just meet for the first time. A lot of times they’re going to be doing a lot more due diligence, a lot more digging, because they’re not able to have that verbal and in face to face communication. However, I do believe that the investment landscape — especially in the early stage startups — I think is actually getting a little bit later. COVID has basically said, “Look,” — pre-COVID — “oh, you have a startup, you have a technology, the technology’s somewhat usable. We’ll put a few million dollars into your company and watch it grow.” Now it’s a little different. They’re saying, “OK, you have a technology, that’s great, good for you, go sell it. And then when you have customers that have bought from you more than once, and you have more than one customer, then come back to us and have a conversation.! So it’s really changed. I think what it’s forcing startups to do is get traction, get real traction before they even talk to these investors. And I think that’s actually overall good for the whole investment environment. I don’t think investing into companies with no proven track record — maybe a product on a napkin – these days, much like the bubble in 2000, it popped and there was a reckoning and people wouldn’t realize that, “Oh, maybe investing in these pie-in-the sky valuation companies is not the right way to do it.” And a prime example of that, as you know, is– I won’t even say it.

Alex: [laughs] There really is this challenge, especially with the inability to do live software demos, the danger is always that everything looks like slideware if you’re not able to meet somebody in person.

Alan: But isn’t that the whole point of virtual technologies? If you’re a VR company, let’s say, for example, shouldn’t you be able to do your pitch in VR? If the investors you’re pitching don’t have a VR headset at all, are they the right VCs to be pitching? Are they the right investors? If they don’t have the basic minimum technology to understand this technology, why are you pitching them? So if I was a VR startup and only focused on VR, I’d be doing all my pitches in VR, use the technology.

Alex: No, no, I don’t know if you need the president of the Men’s Hair Club to also be a member. [chuckles]

Alan: [chuckles] But he *was*, and he was–

Alex: He was, it’s true.

Alan: How did you know? [laughs]

Alex: Not to play into stereotypes, but often investors of a certain age may not have interest in or access to the very latest and greatest.

Alan: Look. A Quest is cheap now. It’s 500 bucks. And the new one, Quest 2, is coming out. It’s $299.

Alex: Now that you can actually get them.

Alan: Now– well, yeah, exactly. So the interesting thing is the technology is not a barrier anymore. And think about it. If you’re pitching somebody who– especially with VR, it’s really hard. You have to put it on their face for them to experience it. And this, I think, is a problem right now. If you’re living in, let’s say, Toronto and you’re pitching somebody in San Francisco and you make VR, how do you put their head in there and make sure they’re in there? And companies like VictoryXR and ENGAGE, these platforms for education and meetings, I think they’re doing a really good job at bringing not only investors, but customers through the experiences. So they say, “Look, if you if you have a VR headset, go in there and we’ll meet you and we’ll do a full tour.” And I think they’re doing a fantastic job at that. Now, if you look at something like game engines, for example, Unity and Unreal, they’ve been established for many, many years. And Unity’s, I think started… I think it was 2003, I think it was.

Alex: I guarantee that most of Unity’s investors are not going into the engine to build their own demos.

Alan: 100 percent. But they also raised a lot of their money before this and they just went public. They don’t need to go and do personal demos for every investor now, but for small startups and studios and people that are raising money, they definitely need that one-on-one, and they need to pitch that. So what people are doing is pitching by Zoom. How many companies have we pitched for sales meetings in Zoom? This is the new normal. So you have to adapt, you have to go forward with it and just do it. So luckily, MetaVRse, when we’re pitching for customers or investors anything, our product really does translate through the web. So even though we’re kind of using Zoom–

Alex: Yeah.

Alan: –I can actually send a link and people can experience the AR, 3D or whatever technology on their phones, real time. And that makes a big difference because now I’ve presented and then transferred that over to your device, and when it’s in your hand, and you can touch it, and feel it, and spin the objects around, and experience it, I think this makes a big difference. You have to get creative with demos now, more than ever.

Alex: And I think it’s highly dependent on the platform, but ours has the advantage of being fully web-based and capable of running on practically any device.

Alan: It really does help. And I would implore anybody who’s working in the space that if you can’t figure out how to make your software work across a ton of different devices, you’re not going to succeed in general, because who knows what people are on. Are they on a computer? Are they on a phone? Are they on VR? Are they on AR? Are they wearing glasses? Are they not? That’s why Unity and Unreal are worth tens of billions of dollars each, because they have this cross-platform reach. And this is why companies like Spatial, for example, have raised millions of dollars as well. They work on Oculus Quest, they work on the Magic Leap. Having cross-platform abilities really opens up the market for any startup to do business, and when it comes down to investment, investment capital is probably the most expensive capital you, as a startup, will ever, ever take in. And I was actually watching a talk the other day, it was some investors and there was this very, very seasoned investor. I can’t remember who he was and I apologize for the name, but his whole thing was, “Look, the best investment your company will ever get is sales dollars.” And it really resonated with me. We’ve built this culture of raise money, lose money, raise more money, lose money, raise more money. Growth at all costs, that type of thing. But when it comes down to it, a business that constantly loses money is not a business. It’s a pit. Unless you’re going to just try to grow to a million users and hope that you get taken out by somebody. But I think we’re in a different landscape. We’re in COVID times now, and people are looking for real value.

Alex: So as the market is limping its way towards 2021, what do you think the XR landscape looks like? LBEs obviously took really hard hits. There are segments of the industry that may never recover. Where do you think there are opportunities for real growth? And what parts do you think will fall away as we push ahead over the next year?

Alan: Well, I think unfortunately– and I love LBE VR, it’s so exciting. If anybody’s tried The Void or Sandbox, these companies, they’ve spent millions of dollars on providing really great out-of-home entertainment experience.

Alex: Premium tier.

Alan: Oh, like vibrating gloves and scent machines, and the whole nut. And I’m really sad, to be honest, that there probably will be no more Void. I believe this is going out of business. Don’t quote me on that one, because they don’t know. But Sandbox VR, they raised a couple hundred million dollars there, they’re struggling. It’s very hard to run a business when your customers cannot come and see you. It’s just impossible. So where do I think this is going? I believe and I’ve always believed that we’re a mobile first society right now. All the growth that we’re seeing in the whole industry is in mobile. And I believe that over the next three to five years, we’re going to go from phone to face, with Facebook announcing their AR glasses last week. Or at least their R&D style glasses, so they can capture everybody’s data.

Alex: [laughs]

Alan: We’ll leave that for another podcast. You also have North being acquired by Google, so Google’s making some strides there. The glasses are coming. Apple had a very kind of– it’s the first time Apple didn’t announce a phone in September, which is interesting. They did announce a number of things that kind of lead you to believe that they’re working on this. So it’s interesting to see that glasses are coming. We’re going to go from phone to face. And I would have said five to seven years before COVID, and I think it’s three to five now. So I think things are speeding up there. But I think there’s still a long road, three to five years, before we have full mass acceptance of wearing glasses on a daily basis for AR.

Alex: Yeah, the horizon has really continued to stretch. I remember back in 2014 when a lot of folks figured that the horizon, to at least being able to hit the hockey stick part of that, was going to be three to five years. And look where we are now.

Alan: Well, Alex, it’s easy to say, “Oh, yeah, it’s going to be a trillion dollar industry, blah, blah, blah.” And all of these– what do you call it… analysts, these big analysts, “Oh it’s going to be billions of dollars. It’s growing by a 150 percent.” What happens when they’re wrong with their analysis? Nothing. Nobody goes back and says, “Oh, you predicted this. You owe us some money because you you failed us.” So these predictions are– you have to take all of them with a grain of salt. Five years ago, there was zero data about the industry. Zero. They were just making it up out of their backsides. However, now we’ve got data, we’ve got traction. And unfortunately, a lot of investors invested too early. There was hundreds of millions of dollars invested in companies like Flipper. They were on the right track, doing really cool stuff, but five years too early. And I believe that even Magic Leap, if you’d put the three billion into Magic Leap starting today, they may have a shot. But they were just way too ahead of the world in terms of adoption and what the world needed. And then I think the other focus is that everybody went after consumer first, and consumer is not the market that’s expanding. It’s enterprise applications that we’re seeing right across the board, that are adopting this and really growing, with the one exception of the Quest. That’s the only one that’s kind of got some consumer traction.

Alex: Well, the Quest is able to bypass that, because they’ve been pushing really hard on the content front. Content is always this catch-22 when it comes to the consumer markets. Consumers need to see lots of content that they want in order to buy the platform. The platform developers need to see that there is a sufficiently large user base in order to justify development in the first place. And I think back in 2014-2015, a lot of folks were assuming that Moore’s Law was just going to magically kick in, and all of the components were going to be miniaturized, and all of the heat problems were going to go away.

Alan: Alex, as you know, that’s the thing: they are doing that.

Alex: They are doing it. It took a lot more fight than I think people were anticipating at the time.

Alan: Well, people always overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can do in the long term. And we took a 10-year roadmap on this. I said, “OK, we started in 2015. So if you take that 10-year roadmap, then you’re not going to be disappointed.” And this is what I would encourage investors, also. When you’re looking at the startups that you’re looking at, what are their five- and 10-year roadmaps? Do they even have one? Are they looking for a quick exit? There’s going to be a lot of little exits that happen. And we’ve already seen a ton of M&A happening in the space as well. But I think there’s going to be a ton of rolling up of these technologies. And those are not going to be billion-dollar exits. They’re going to be 10-, 20-, 30-million dollar exits. North Glasses, they raised something like $195-million and sold for $185-million. (Don’t quote me on those numbers, I’ll have to Google them.) But they sold for less than they raised. Is that a success story? I don’t know. If you’re an investor and you get nothing back, at least maybe you get return of capital. And they made some really great developments. So maybe it is a success story.

Alex: Mixed success story, yeah. I think the presence of a large headset manufacturer — or I should say, a significant headset manufacturer — out of Canada will be missed. Maybe you can speak of it actually to the Toronto aspect of that.

Alan: Of which, sorry?

Alex: North.

Alan: North Glasses. So, I mean, Toronto is not home of North, actually they’re in Waterloo, which is about 40 minutes west of the city. So they’re not really in Toronto. They’re in a little hub called Silicon Valley North. And there’s this corridor between Toronto and Waterloo. Google’s got a head office there. And North had their head office. They were doing manufacturing. They were doing research. They were doing everything in Waterloo. And for those old enough to know what a BlackBerry is, Waterloo, it was the home of BlackBerry. And so there’s a really, really big tech community there because BlackBerry was the largest tech company in Canadian history, one of the biggest success stories, and one of the biggest lessons of technology in Canada, next to Nortel. But we had this wonderful conglomerate of tech people, I guess. And so now North was able to develop real, true augmented reality glasses. They were interesting because they were just a heads-up display, but it was really cool — I have them sitting on the desk here. And you had a little ring and you could see them and they were wonderful. But again, timing and… it takes a lot to change people’s behaviors. I don’t wear glasses on a daily basis. You want me to put glasses on? They better be damn awesome.

Alex: And comfortable.

Alan: And comfortable and light. And the batteries have got to work and the field of view has got to be good. And so, consumers are fickle. And I think what you’re going to see in 2020 is a launch of new XR viewers, things like NREAL or MAD Gaze, these glasses that give you spatial computing, very lightweight, I think NREAL’s are something like 88 grams. So not heavy at all. And they’re going to plug into your phone so that all the processing power will be on your phone, via probably USB cable. And so these glasses are going to unlock abilities for people to have AR on their face. So I think there’s opportunities around there. And I believe they just raised $40-million. I think it was for the AR glasses… not MAD Gaze, the other ones.

Alex: Speaking of some of these longer-term trends, at time of recording, we’re less than seven weeks out from a presidential election in the United States. We’ve seen an enormous bleed of labor and to some extent capital from south of the border to a lot of these technology hubs: Vancouver, the GTA, and Montreal being some of the major beneficiaries. Can you lay out what you sort of see? Are these trends going to accelerate regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office?

Alan: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I believe the fundamental differences between the candidates; One wants a complete closed down and nationalistic view of the world — America, above all else — and that’s fine, I understand that. And they’ve positioned themselves to take advantage of that. However, we’re in a global world now. We’re in a global society. And it doesn’t behoove any one nation to try to isolate themselves anymore. We’re past that as humanity. And that’s a kind of a dumb thing to do. And what’s happened now is all of the talent that you normally would see come into a country cannot, it’s blocked from that. And I think that’s going to do a disservice to American technology companies in the long run. I also think that Americans naturalized and natural born Americans have a lower risk tolerance across the board, for everything from starting businesses to employment. Everything is lower risk. And when you have an entire generation that’s being built around lower risk, that means lower entrepreneurship rates and lower innovation. And when you don’t have immigrants coming in with highly technical skills from around the world, this can be a hindrance to companies. Now, we’re already working remotely anyway. So do we really need to bring people into a country to work for you? So maybe this will open up opportunities for companies to have development partners around the world. And I think this is a great place to be in a time where we’re in the middle of a pandemic. You mentioned earlier, it’s the best time to start a company and get a company off the ground, because if you can succeed an environment like this where the world’s upside down, we’re in a presidential election, things are going sideways. There’s riots in the streets. We have race riots going on in the U.S. If you can build a business that’s successful during all of this, you are going to be able to weather the storm. And to come back to MetaVRse for a second, we’ve been kind of focused on sales for the last little bit. And so really what we’ve done is focused on our customers and what do they need right now? How can we help with that type of thing? I think the investment landscape, we’ll start to realize with with different companies that as long as you’re making sales in this environment, if you can make real revenue in this environment, you’re a company to to invest in.

Alex: And again, it’s an environment that exposes needs that were not being exacerbated before. We have seen these increasing demands for things like remote training, which already has lots of proof points to back it up. But you have these established processes in place for, this is how we train industrial workers. This is how we train people who go out on the oil rigs. But then as soon as those traditional ways no longer work, it opens up this gaping void.

Alan: Yeah, it’s exciting. We just finished a project, as you know, where we took a PDF manual, which was like a 200-page manual with a bunch of 2D diagrams, and we converted it into 3D completely. And man, my new sales pitch is going to be. “Here’s your PDF manual. What do you think of this? It’s great. Right now, here’s the 3D version. Choose which one you want moving forward.” It’s a no-brainer. You can’t… it’s not even the same ballpark. You spend 20 minutes looking at this picture going, OK, is the arrow pointing at that part or this part because it’s too deep? You can’t, you can’t tell. But in 3D I can zoom right in, see where the arrow’s pointing, figure out the part number and go. It’s not even in the same… it’s an exponential, 100X improvement in what was being used before. So if a picture says a thousand words, then a 3D experience says a thousand pictures. And so now you’ve got a million-times improvement over words. We’re really at that point where 3D is easy to make, easy to share and easy to to learn how to build. And that’s one of our ethos at MetaVRse, is it should be everybody allowed to make 3D. It shouldn’t just be, “I have to hire some unit developers,” or “I have to go and find a bunch of people to help me.” Anybody in the organization, whether it’s in training or marketing or e-commerce or support, should be able to create these experiences quickly and easily and share them and disseminate them to their trainees as quickly as possible.

Alex: Yeah, a lot of junior marketing folks love platforms like Canva for that reason. Because it provides them with the tools that they need to be able to achieve rapid turnaround on things that would normally require a graphics designer. And we’re seeing this increased demand for 3D experiences and being able to get inside a product and understand. I just wish I’d had something like this 3D experience for the last time I built furniture in my house.

Alan: We were doing a demo for one of our clients, showing them one of my experiences, and they said, “Oh my God, IKEA needs this for their furniture.”

Alex: Seriously.

Alan: If you’re listening, Martin from IKEA. But it’s true and it doesn’t need to be an app, MetaVRse is completely Web-based, so you bypass the need to push an app and wait for apps, updates and all that. We’re moving beyond that.

Alex: That brings us to another topic that has been very much in the news lately, and that is this struggle between Epic Games and Apple. And at the heart of this question is the question of app stores and the question of revenue share.

Alan: Well, on that note, Alex, I’m going to put a pin in that because I just wrote an article entitled Could Web-Based Game Engines Be the End of the App Stores? So I’m going to put a pin in this. We’re going to wrap it up today and look out for that article coming out this week. I really want to thank you for for flipping the tables today, Alex, this is really exciting. I do have to wrap it up because I have another podcast interview right now.

Alex: Yeah, yeah.

Alan: Yeah, yeah. It’s that time. One place I would tell everybody to go if they’re interested in learning more about the investment landscape is Digi-Capital. Tim Merrill and his team over at Digi-Capital keep a really great VR/AR investment deal flow real time. And so you can go to Digi-Capital, just Google it, and Tim Merrill has got some great stuff on there. You can see where the trends are going. Q1 of 2020 was the lowest investment in AR in the last five years. And that was pre-COVID. So you can imagine the last two quarters, VR and VR investments basically were down to nothing.

Alex: Nowhere to go but up!

Alan: Yeah, you can’t go anywhere but up now. So maybe some advice would be for startups to look at Unity, look at NexTech VR, AR, NexTech XR or whatever. They’re a company on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Unity is now on the stock exchange. So I think investors in the mass investment landscape are starting to understand this technology. And I think that’s good for everybody involved. And I think there’s a huge opportunity. The time is immediately now. Five years ago is too early, now is perfect, and two years from now will be too late. So I think it’s an interesting wave we’re in. We’re in the second wave of AR and VR and it’s all going to start with the phone and go to the face.

Alex: Well, thanks for being on the podcast today, Alan. I’ll hand the reins back over. Have a great interview.

Alan: Awesome, man. Thank you so much. And thank you everybody for listening. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss any of the XR for Business Podcast. I’m your host, Alan Smithson, with my amazing guest and I guess I’m the guest of this one. Alex Colgan, VP of marketing for MetaVRse. Awesome, buddy. Thank you so much.

Alex: Cheers.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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