Helium

One of the pillars of USV’s investment thesis 3.0 is “broadening access to capital”, and we often get asked what we mean by that.  While “capital” includes financial capital, we have always meant it more broadly, to include human capital, technology infrastructure capital, and access to “ownership” more generally.

One of the most important types of technology infrastructure is the telecommunications network.  While there is significant investment taking place in this sector, there are still major gaps when it comes to accessibility, in terms of coverage, cost, and usability.  This is why USV has invested in companies like Pilot, Ting (part of Tucows), goTenna and Cloudflare, and will continue to seek out opportunities to invest in projects that broaden access to this critical infrastructure layer.

As the next step in that journey, today we are excited to announce that we have co-led a $15M Series C financing in Helium, along with our friends at Multicoin Capital.

Helium is building a new kind of wireless network. For commercial customers, Helium makes it inexpensive and easy to connect low-power IoT devices (bikes, key fobs, temperature sensors, etc.) to the internet, providing both data connectivity and location services.  For infrastructure operators (independent operators of “hotspots” on the Helium network), Helium represents a new deployment model and business model for building out essential networking infrastructure.

Helium is innovating on both the demand side and the supply side of this new connectivity marketplace, pioneering a number of concepts that we believe have the potential to radically broaden access to wireless connectivity:

Long-range, low-power, low-cost:

“LongFi” is Helium’s wireless protocol that works over long distances and consumes very small amounts of power at the end device.  While low-power, long-range data networks are not a new idea, they are not yet widely utilized and the opportunity to leverage them for new use cases is still open.

Low-cost, low-power, low-data-rate connectivity is not appropriate for every situation, but there are many, many unserved use cases that can benefit from this kind of network. For example, wildfire detection (many small sensors with tiny batteries spread over a large area), pet tracking (small sensor, small battery, ultra low cost), bike theft (small, durable, long-lasting sensors shipping directly inside the frame), agricultural & supply chain uses, and more.  Anywhere where the requirements are small size, long life, low cost and intermittent low-data-rate connectivity.

While there a set of existing wireless technologies that have similar properties that have resulted in promising initial deployments (Narrowband IoT in the licensed spectrum space and The Things Network and Sigfox in the unlicensed space), there has not yet been an open system that unites them into a single network.  Helium’s community-driven approach attempts to solve that problem in a novel way.

Community-driven:

Hotspots, the backbone of the Helium network, can be deployed by anyone, anywhere, simply by plugging into an existing router.  The Helium network will be assembled, over time, by a broad community of volunteers, civic organizations, commercial partners, and ideally a new class of entrepreneurs building out connectivity in new cities and towns.

Economic activity in the Helium network is coordinated through a new type of blockchain that uses “proof of coverage” (proving that a Hotspot is actually located in physical space) to secure the network and incentivize deployment where it is needed most.  We believe that the Helium network has the potential to become one of the most decentralized blockchain networks in existence, due to physical location as the underpinning of the economic and security model.

The Hotspot itself is built from commodity hardware and open source software.  Anyone who wants to can assemble a Helium-compatible hotspot from parts, can download open source software that will link existing compatible wireless radio to the network, or can, of course, buy one pre-assembled from Helium Inc.  USV has ordered a handful of Hotspots and plans to kickstart NYC’s Helium network, unless someone else beats us to it :-)

just_work = true

Finally, because of the design of Helium’s “Data Credits” (non-transferable cryptographic tokens that are redeemable for a fixed unit of bandwidth on the network, and can be pre-loaded on any device), Helium-compatible devices can ship with internet connectivity built-in and automatically on.  

Imagine a world where products automatically connect to the internet, without the need to sign a contract with a cell carrier, set up a credit card account, etc.   Think about the experience of buying a regular old radio: you turn it on and it just works.  Unfortunately wireless internet does not currently work that way -- but with Helium, it can.  This kind of functionality has the potential to unlock dramatically new user experiences around all kinds of connected devices.  We believe that this will be one of the killer features of blockchains and cryptonetworks.

Together with Multicoin, and along with the existing syndicate of FirstMark, Khosla Ventures, GV, and MunichRE Ventures, we are incredibly excited to support Helium as it embarks on this next chapter.

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