• A VC Adds a Thesis: “Wrist First”

    Peter RelanPeter Relan, a veteran of Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, has spent the last decade nurturing young companies at his YouWeb incubator in Mountain View, Ca. At first, he focused on mobile social gaming companies, investing $2 million across a variety of startups and enjoying at least one big hit when OpenFeint, a social gaming network, was acquired in 2011 by the Japan-based Internet media company Gree for $104 million.

    In 2013, Relan began raising a separate $10 million from wealthy individuals for a program within YouWeb called 9+, an incubator and accelerator that focuses on marketplaces, wearables, and so-called Internet of Things technologies.

    A number of highly promising companies are again emerging from the outfit, insists Relan, including the online video gaming company Hammer & Chisel, launched by OpenFeint founder Jason Citron. (It has raised $12 million in funding from 9+, IDG Ventures, Accel Partners, Benchmark, and Tencent.)

    Relan also points to GotIt, a seed-funded photo-based on-demand marketplace that’s begun talking with investors about a Series A, and the “connected kitchen” startup Camellia Labs, founded by former Salesforce senior engineering manager Guarav Chawla. (“Everybody in Silicon Valley who’s in the design business is stumbling over themselves, trying to be the product design shop for [Chawla],” says Relan.)

    Still, what’s capturing much of Relan’s attention these days, he says, are “wrist-first” technologies — apps developed expressly for smartwatches, which he expects will represent a huge opportunity over the next couple of years as the Apple Watch streams into the marketplace.

    One of his bets, for example, is on a nascent company called Awear, whose app enables users to send and receive SMS messages with a couple of clicks. It doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary, but it represents a “10x” leap in terms of speed, says Relan, who notes that it’s a lot easier to tap a watch than “fish a phone out of your pocket or handbag, then unlock it, open the right app, and respond.” (Awear first launched on the Pebble smartwatch and 10 percent of Pebble customers have downloaded the app, says Relan.)

    Relan thinks the possibilities extend far beyond communications, too. “Think of games that are easy to play in one or two clicks. Or the B2B app that notifies an executive that he received 400 orders during an important meeting. Or an app that can deliver an EKG to your doctor with the tap of a button.”

    Smartwatches may have low computing power, he notes, but smartwatches combined with the power of the cloud begin to look pretty compelling.

    More, says Relan, he has seen this movie before.

    “When the iPhone was just being introduced [and we began focusing on mobile social gaming], the hard-core gamers laughed at us. They said, ‘[The phone] is tiny. It has no keyboard, no controls.’ But I said it would be 10 times more convenient to play, and now mobile social gaming is multibillion-dollar industry.”

    “Whenever a new platform succeeds, it’s because it improves [on the status quo] by at least a factor of 10,” Relan continues. The Apple Watch might not be 10 times better than the smartphone, but he fully expects it to let users do things 10 times faster — and that’s enough to get him excited about what’s next.

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