Two months after leaving Telenav, Eli Portnoy is back on the startup scene. Portnoy, who sold Thinknear to the navigation firm in October 2012, has raised $2.75 million from a handful of investors, including Seamless founder Jason Finger, for a new project, Sense360.
The new startup is developing software to analyze the data flowing from the oft-forgotten sensors already installed on smartphones, such as light readers and accelerometers, to more accurately determine the physical context of a user. Portnoy says the technology can use the data to help application developers better engage and retain their users and combat the high churn endemic to the mobile application business.
“Facebook, Twitter, Fisku and all of these companies are building billion dollar businesses around driving downloads but the problem is that only a fraction of those downloads turn into active users,” said Portnoy in an interview. “Meanwhile, all of these sensors [on the device] are getting better, and they all paint this very interesting picture of the user.”
Portnoy isn’t sharing much of Sense360’s strategy, but the churn in the mobile application business has created an industry unto itself. Some industry insiders believe app installs could account for over half of the $2 billion Facebook generated in mobile revenue during the third quarter of last year alone. Research firm eMarketer projects that app install ads alone will generate upwards of $11 billion in revenue by 2017.
Sensors can offer developers a dimension beyond simply location, often in unintended ways. For instance, Portnoy says the company’s software can tell whether a user is inside or outside of a building by analyzing the strength of a cellular signal. If the signal strength is high, then the user is likely outside; low and there is a good chance that a person is inside. Or, it can use the light sensor, originally intended to automatically adjust screen brightness, to determine whether a device is being used or remains in a person’s pocket.
To an extent, the introduction of sensors is a natural progression in the mobile industry as it moves to understand not only location, but place and eventually context as well. In most cases, the margin of era with GPS is too large to account for the sensitivity implicit in places: The difference between walking down the street and sitting in a cafe may be only a few feet in distance but they are worlds away in meaning. In terms of context, which tends to deal with the various ways we experience places, censors help capture those nuances; they can tell whether a bar is busy or empty, whether a user is running to a meeting or standing on line at a coffee shop.
Portnoy says the company, which he began developing six months before leaving Telenav, is currently working with a few test partners but will expand in the next few months.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.