A REAL-LIFE SLUM­DOG MIL­LION­AIRE RAT­TLES GOOGLE’S CAGE

There’s a race on to map out the aug­mented re­al­ity uni­verse, and Ambarish Mi­tra means to win it. Can his au­da­cious startup, Blip­par, ful­fill its am­bi­tious quest to build the first vis­ual Wikipedia?

Inc. (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

It was prob­a­bly in­evitable that Ambarish Mi­tra would start an aug­mented re­al­ity com­pany like Blip­par, which lets you look at real-world ob­jects en­hanced with text and dig­i­tal graph­ics through your smart­phone cam­era. After all, Mi­tra seems to have lived his en­tire life in an aug­mented re­al­ity of his own, one that reads like a mash-up of Charles Dick­ens, Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, and Sal­man Rushdie.

JUST LIS­TEN TO MI­TRA’S TALE of how he got his start as an en­tre­pre­neur. In 1997, he was a 17-year-old run­away in the slums of New Delhi, sleep­ing in a shack with mud-and-cow-dung walls and mak­ing his liv­ing ped­dling tea and mag­a­zines, when he came across an ad­ver­tise­ment for a busi­ness-plan con­test run by an In­dian tech com­pany. First prize: $10,000. A fem­i­nist move­ment was then sweep­ing In­dia, and Mi­tra had the idea of pro­vid­ing free in­ter­net ac­cess to women who couldn’t af­ford to pay for it. He wrote up his pitch and mailed it off—then re­turned to his life as a chai ven­dor, con­fi­dent that was that. How could it not be? Even if the judges liked his plan, what were the chances they would be able to find him in his mud shack, with no tele­phone or mail­ing ad­dress?

Ex­cept they did. A post­man fol­low­ing the in­struc­tions he’d writ­ten out in lieu of a re­turn ad­dress left a let­ter with the lo­cal to­bac­conist, in­form­ing Mi­tra that he’d been short­listed and invit­ing him to pitch in per­son. He did, and won. Three years later, WomenIn­foOn­line, the com­pany born of that idea, went pub­lic, mak­ing him a wealthy man—and vin­di­cat­ing his de­ci­sion to leave home and a life of pre­dictable mid­dle-class com­fort. (If this sounds sus­pi­ciously close to the plot of the movie Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire, well, the par­al­lels have fre­quently been noted in press re­ports. Mi­tra’s sis­ter and a friend from that era con­firm parts of his ac­count, though doc­u­men­ta­tion on the con­test is thin.)

“That post shouldn’t even have come back to me,” Mi­tra mar­vels, at Blip­par’s San Fran­cisco head­quar­ters, 20 years and two con­ti­nents later. A serene, round-faced man of 37, he wears his usual uni­form: T-shirt, gem­stone rings on each fin­ger of his right hand, and a flat-billed baseball cap em­bla­zoned with “Spir­i­tual Gang­ster.” The rings are cus­tom made; he never goes out without them. The cap, one of sev­eral, is pur­chased from the yoga-wear com­pany Spir­i­tual Gang­ster, but Mi­tra has adopted its brand name as his per­sonal mantra. The phrase cap­tures the two sides of his per­son­al­ity: the fighter and the philoso­pher. “Ev­ery hu­man has di­chotomies,” he says. “Most of us have two fields of view in life.”

The seen and the un­seen: That’s the di­chotomy Mi­tra has spent the past six years seeking to bridge with Blip­par. Along the way, he has raised nearly $100 mil­lion and en­listed 300 em­ploy­ees, aim­ing to build a vis­ual search en­gine that can rec­og­nize any­thing you point your phone at and serve up rel­e­vant facts, games, shop­ping in­for­ma­tion, and user-gen­er­ated con­tent. Think Poké­mon Go meets Wikipedia meets Foursquare. Al­ready, 65 mil­lion peo­ple have down­loaded the app to “blipp” an ad or prod­uct, gen­er­at­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue from Blip­par’s ad­ver­tis­ing part­ners.

And the com­pany has only just be­gun mar­ket­ing di­rectly to con­sumers, po­ten­tially open­ing up hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars more in rev­enue. With Poké­mon Go and Snapchat’s face fil­ters turn­ing the masses on to aug­mented re­al­ity, Mi­tra claims Blip­par’s mo­ment has ar­rived. “We’ve taken the ma­jor­ity of hu­man knowl­edge and cre­ated a vis­ual DNA for it,” he says.

That’s the am­bi­tion, any­way. But even if the age of AR is upon us, Blip­par is hardly alone in herald­ing it—and there’s a whiff of mag­i­cal think­ing to Mi­tra’s be­lief that his startup, which is still los­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars per year and strug­gling with tech­ni­cal glitches, will be its big­gest winner. The tech in­dus­try’s largest play­ers are all rac­ing ahead with their own ef­forts to de­fine what the aug­mented fu­ture will look like, and cap­ture the prof­its from it. Mi­crosoft has the HoloLens, a mixed re­al­ity head­set de­signed pri­mar­ily for gam­ing, while Face­book has its own Ocu­lus Rift head­set. Mean­while, Google and its par­ent com­pany, Al­pha­bet, have made one stab after another at VR and AR, in­clud­ing a se­cre­tive mixed re­al­ity startup called Magic Leap. The few who have seen Magic Leap in ac­tion re­port it to be truly mind-blow­ing; mean­while, Blip­par’s app some­times has

trou­ble dis­tin­guish­ing a cof­feepot from a teaket­tle.

But where oth­ers see big threats, Mi­tra rec­og­nizes only tiny wrin­kles. The glitches in how his app works are tem­po­rary byprod­ucts of a pow­er­ful deep-learn­ing process, he says, one that’s well on the way to cre­at­ing “a su­per­hu­man brain” with “the en­tire knowl­edge repos­i­tory of the whole world.” He also ar­gues that the com­pany’s head start in weav­ing to­gether dis­parate dis­ci­plines like 3-D ren­der­ing and com­puter vi­sion will give com­peti­tors no choice but to use its op­er­at­ing sys­tem. “We started this well be­fore any of the big guys even thought about it,” he says.

Mi­tra’s vi­sion is it­self a form of aug­mented re­al­ity: what he is sure will be su­per­im­posed on what is. One thing he’s not imag­in­ing is the scope of what he’s un­der­taken. “Mak­ing the phys­i­cal world dig­i­tal is a bit of a holy grail in the tech com­mu­nity,” says Brian Blau, vice pres­i­dent of re­search at tech ad­vi­sory firm Gart­ner. “That’s re­ally what they’re after, but al­most all these other aug­mented re­al­ity busi­nesses are after it as well.”

Still, Blau be­lieves Blip­par is look­ing at a gi­gan­tic op­por­tu­nity—if it can sur­vive as an in­de­pen­dent com­pany un­til so­ci­ety is ready to em­brace its aug­mented fu­ture. “There’s a lot of pos­si­bil­ity there,” he says, “but also a lot of risk.”

MI­TRA’S PAR­TIC­U­LAR blend of tough­ness and ethe­re­al­ity has its roots in Dhanbad, in east­ern In­dia, where he grew up. His­tor­i­cally, the city was a cen­ter of wis­dom, home to one of the world’s first uni­ver­si­ties. Then the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion hap­pened, and the vast coal fields un­der­neath Dhanbad be­came more valu­able than any of the learn­ing hap­pen­ing there. You can guess what fol­lowed. “Spir­i­tu­al­ism went down and cor­rup­tion went up,” Mi­tra says. “Lit­er­ally, the dark side of hu­man na­ture came out by flip­ping the very land. This has been core to my foun­da­tion.”

When his fam­ily moved from Kolkata, where Mi­tra was born, to Dhanbad, it was one of In­dia’s most vi­o­lent towns. Mi­tra’s fa­ther, Aghore, was an en­gi­neer for the steel com­pany Tata, and the fam­ily lived in a se­cure com­pany-run en­clave, but at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity Mi­tra and his friends played in aban­doned coal mines, run­ning along rope­ways over open pits. “When I look back, the stuff we did, ev­ery day some­one could have died,” he says. “In ru­ral parts of In­dia, ad­ven­ture is built in—so when you get into cities, you find all parts of life not a prob­lem.”

Mi­tra would soon put that to the test. As the el­dest son of a Tata en­gi­neer, he was guar­an­teed a cov­eted job at the com­pany after grad­u­a­tion—but he was bored by study­ing and failed his year-end ex­ams two years in a row. His fam­ily had by then moved to Delhi; one day, ashamed of be­ing held back, Mi­tra ran away to the slums, in New Delhi. A note to his par­ents said he was in Mum­bai. “He was a risk-taker, very ad­ven­tur­ous,” says Shamim Ahmed, who shared a mud-walled room with Mi­tra and seven oth­ers, and who runs a school in the north­ern city of Gaya. “He wanted to do some­thing big in his life.”

When his in­ter­net com­pany went pub­lic in 2000, Mi­tra sud­denly found him­self charged with a sense of in­vin­ci­bil­ity. He moved to Eng­land and re­sumed his stud­ies, while do­ing con­tract IT work for the gov­ern­ment and work­ing at a se­ries of star­tups. The first one he joined quickly fiz­zled. Then he launched a com­pany of his own, SwapShop, a sort of Craigslist

for peo­ple look­ing to trade or give away un­wanted items. To code the site, he en­listed his best friend’s younger brother, a web devel­oper named Omar Tayeb. The startup sput­tered out, but the part­ner­ship en­dured: Mi­tra and Tayeb tried again with Stuck, an ad­vice-ori­ented so­cial net­work. It too flopped, and Mi­tra’s sav­ings fi­nally ran out. He moved into a tiny apart­ment and took a job as head of in­no­va­tion with an in­sur­ance com­pany called Swift­cover, which was about to get ac­quired by the in­sur­ance gi­ant AXA. Tayeb got a job there too.

By then, the two were close friends; Tayeb was no longer just the kid who sat in the back seat on his brother’s out­ings. One night in 2010, the part­ners were blow­ing off steam at a pub when Mi­tra paid for drinks with a 20-pound note. When the bar­tender was slow to make change, Mi­tra mused about how cool it would be if the Queen’s face on his bill could come to life, like the mag­i­cal por­traits in Harry Pot­ter. Wait a sec­ond— could they make that re­ally hap­pen?

They could. Tayeb man­aged to code a crude ver­sion within a few weeks; it was enough to per­suade both friends to quit their jobs and try start­ing yet another com­pany.

If Tayeb is Blip­par’s orig­i­nal en­gi­neer, Mi­tra is its vi­sion­ary. He has his own ver­sion of the “re­al­ity dis­tor­tion field” fa­mously at­trib­uted to Steve Jobs. Like the Ap­ple co­founder, he’s not so much a tech­nol­o­gist as an idea man and a bril­liant com­mu­ni­ca­tor who can tell a story in a way that gets oth­ers ex­cited to be part of it. “He some­how has a weird con­fi­dence that ev­ery­thing is go­ing to work out,” and it’s con­ta­gious, Tayeb says.

That’s ex­actly how Mi­tra charmed his way into Blip­par’s first, ex­trav­a­gant of­fices. He was de­ter­mined to set up shop in Lon­don’s posh Covent Gar­den–Hol­born neigh­bor­hood to help win big ad­ver­tis­ing ac­counts. “It was com­pletely un­af­ford­able for us as a com­pany with zero rev­enue and no fund­ing,” Tayeb says. “Trust me,” Mi­tra said, and pro­ceeded to sweet-talk the CEO of an out­door ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany into giv­ing Blip­par free of­fice space for more than a year, con­vinc­ing him that aug­mented re­al­ity would make bill­boards so much more valu­able. By the time Blip­par had to pay its own way, it was able to af­ford of­fices 150 feet down the street.

Not ev­ery­thing was so cheap, of course. Mi­tra and Tayeb quickly re­al­ized they needed to hire ex­pen­sive tal­ent to build the pow­er­ful im­age-recog­ni­tion en­gine they en­vi­sioned. They could do it without rais­ing a lot of money if they could sign up some big ad­ver­tis­ing cus­tomers that would pay them to cre­ate aug­mented re­al­ity con­tent. De­spite hav­ing no real users to speak of, Mi­tra sold the con­cept to brands like Tesco and Cad­bury, and signed them up for five-fig­ure na­tional cam­paigns.

That was enough busi­ness to get them no­ticed by big­ger in­vestors. Tayeb had built the first ver­sion of Blip­par’s app us­ing soft­ware li­censed by Qual­comm, where ex­ec­u­tives soon saw a spike in traf­fic to one tiny cus­tomer. Jason Ball, who makes tech in­vest­ments for Qual­comm’s ven­ture arm, asked for a meet­ing, at which Mi­tra’s sales­man­ship once again worked. He ex­plained that brands put the Blip­par logo on their pack­ag­ing and in ads, en­cour­ag­ing their cus­tomers to down­load the app—all at no cost to Blip­par.

Ball was as­ton­ished. “I was like, ‘So you’re not mar­ket­ing your prod­uct, you’re not spend­ing any­thing on user ac­qui­si­tion, and the cus­tomer is pay­ing you for the plea­sure of do­ing this on your be­half?’ ” he says. “Dude, how fast can I give you a check?”

By 2014, Mi­tra and Tayeb had proved Blip­par was vi­able, but it was in dan­ger of be­com­ing a glo­ri­fied dig­i­tal ad agency. It sold ex­actly the sort of prod­uct big mar­keters were look­ing for: some­thing im­mer­sive that could hold con­sumers’ at­ten­tion in a world where on­line ad block­ers were mak­ing them ever harder to reach. That was good for Blip­par’s rev­enue, but bad for cus­tomer re­ten­tion: Since the com­pany re­lied on mar­keters to tell peo­ple to down­load the app, Blip­par’s em­ploy­ees spent their time mak­ing con­tent for these ad­ver­tis­ers. The app func­tioned al­most like a white-la­bel prod­uct with no real user base of its own.

But Mi­tra and Tayeb had an idea how to build one. They knew that after peo­ple blipped ads or prod­ucts, they of­ten pointed their cam­eras at other things around them to see what con­tent ap­peared—only to be dis­ap­pointed when noth­ing popped up. What they needed was to make ev­ery­thing blip­pable, so users could treat Blip­par as a cam­era-pow­ered search en­gine or a vis­ual Wikipedia. If you’re cu­ri­ous about any­thing—a car, a cu­cum­ber, Vladimir Putin, the Mona Lisa—you should be able to point your phone’s cam­era at it and find out more. And not just what it is, but how it re­lates to ev­ery­thing else. If it’s a dog, what breed? If it’s a blouse, where can it be pur­chased, and what skirts or pants might pair well with it? “We want to rec­og­nize ev­ery­thing in the phys­i­cal world and give peo­ple con­tent on top of it,” as Mi­tra puts it.

So the founders fo­cused their en­er­gies on the new mis­sion. In Fe­bru­ary 2015, they raised more money to hire dozens of engi­neers and open up big new of­fices in San Fran­cisco and nearby Moun­tain View. Tayeb moved from Lon­don to Moun­tain View that sum­mer, mak­ing it the new cen­ter of op­er­a­tions, and Mi­tra re­lo­cated to San Fran­cisco.

The move was cru­cial to Blip­par’s new strat­egy. Swim­ming in the Sil­i­con Val­ley tal­ent pool made Mi­tra and Tayeb re­al­ize how naive they’d been about their task. Un­til one fate­ful re­cruit­ing din­ner, they’d thought they could scrape so much of the in­ter­net that their app would be able to do a re­verse-im­age search on any­thing the cam­era saw. “We were go­ing to build a data­base of a tril­lion, tril­lion im­ages,” Mi­tra says.

Then an en­gi­neer they were court­ing, named Xue­jun Wang, told Mi­tra point blank there was no in­for­ma­tion ar­chi­tec­ture in the world that could make such a data­base man­age­able. Even if the com­pany could

“You’re not mar­ket­ing your prod­uct,and the cus­tomer is pay­ing you to do this on your be­half?” one early in­vestor in Blip­par re­al­ized. “Dude, how fast can I give you a check?”

Pho­to­graph by MADS PERCH

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