#StartupsEverywhere: Berkeley, Calif.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Dave Alpert, CEO and co-founder, Geopogo

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

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Building Augmented Reality in Berkeley

Geopogo, a 3D software company, is working on cutting edge augmented reality technology for design and construction. We recently spoke with Dave Alpert, CEO and co-founder of Geopogo, to hear his story and perspective on the startup ecosystem in Berkeley, Calif. Among other things, Dave credits the success of his team to his leadership style of giving his team members space to work and thrive, like oxygen helps a campfire burn brightly.

Can you give us a brief overview of Geopogo and what you do?

Geopogo is a 3D software solution company. The way we differentiate ourselves is that we make things simpler. We are opening access for new users to 3D design using visualization software, expanding the 3D market. To begin with, we are focusing on augmented reality (AR). We are highly experienced architects as well as software engineers and 3D artists. AR is the natural solution for visualizing the building environment, whether that is an empty lot or an existing interior space. For the first time we make it possible for users to import 3D models from Autodesk Revit or Trimble SketchUp into our Geopogo platform, which then offers a one click access to a 3D experience. This will revolutionize the design and construction process in many ways. 

What is the essential difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) isolates you from your immediate environment, so it’s perfect for fantasy. Augmented reality maintains your connection to your immediate surroundings and allows you to overlay whatever selected information you want on top of it. Sometimes, that's a heads-up display, like instructions to repair a machine. In our case, it has to do with spatial overlay. You’re overlaying the proposed design on top of existing conditions.

Tell us more about yourself and how you got started on this project. 

I spent my professional career as a building architect, designing and leading projects such as the headquarters for Sun Microsystems, highrises in downtown San Francisco, hospitals, university buildings, and even two houses for my family. So, I had very little tech background. Then one night, I awoke from a dream at 2:30 in the morning with the idea for Geopogo. I woke up my wife, Elizabeth, and we talked about it for hours. Then the next day, I started the company.

How did you go about recruiting tech talent to make this possible?

One of the first people I talked to was a startup attorney, and he told me to build a team of people who believed in my vision. I started by inviting my younger friends in architecture, because many younger practitioners already have 3D computer visualization skills. I also had a friend who worked for Pixar as an art director and had created all the characters for Inside Out. He was super talented. I went to Meetups (groups for startup entrepreneurs in the Bay Area and elsewhere) almost every night; that was a fantastic resource. So first, it was friends. Secondly, it was reaching out in appropriate locations like Meetups where I met team members including my co-founder, Travis Bell, and our Product Manager, Myoung Kang, as well as industry events like Augmented World Expo, where I met our Creative Director, Michael Hoppe. More recently, our recruiting has come mostly through referrals from people who are on our team. Right now, we are in a technology incubator at UC Berkeley, so we are getting a lot of team members directly from the University as well.

What has your development timeline been like? 

We started off with the model we were used to as architects; we were serving individual customers with  custom-made 3D projects. For example, we created an online model of a coworking space, so the company could pre-sell memberships while they were building their physical space. We created a virtual art museum for a university where people could visit and view the artwork that was actually in storage. Unfortunately, the service-oriented model just didn’t have that much potential. I realized that we had to make designing 3D models as simple as possible and empower other people to be the creators. That’s where we got the idea to build a software product. This idea of having a very simple and accessible product for desktop and VR evolved into our  augmented reality product. There’s more competition in the VR marketplace, and it’s challenging to build a creator tool that approaches the functionality of tools like Sketchup and Revit. With out current product, you can import Sketchup and Revit models. You can still build a model from scratch with our creator tool, but it’s less likely that our users will want to do that.

What major roadblocks have you faced?

The main roadblock we’ve had in terms of policy or regulations has to do with immigration policies. We had one team member who was here from Ukraine on OPT status. He was entitled to work here for a few years because he had graduated from a U.S. university, but then he was not selected for H-1B even though we hired an immigration attorney and tried to optimize his chances. It just didn’t work out. It was tragic for him, and really sad for us. We have since hired many other international candidates, one of whom saw our local internship ad on Uloop all the way from Hungary. 

What is your current scope of operation?

We are about to release our AR product. It is a frontier technology, and we kind of stuck our neck out by getting into augmented reality. It seems so perfect for our customers, but they don’t have the hardware and are not even familiar with the technology. Most of them think AR is the same as VR, and they’ve already seen and tried VR. We have to educate them, so it’s more of a long-term play. We have a first-to-market position advantage right now. We are working to become better known through exposure, and marketing takes a lot of money. For the time being, we are just focused on the Bay Area. 

We are not going to sell hardwear at any point, since it’s so expensive to develop. Magic Leap raised $2.6 billion dollars, and their only product so far is the headset. These are the headsets that are shown in several of our online videos. Microsoft is the other major AR hardwear developer, and we all know how much money they can invest. However, hardware developers need software developers like us to create the content that drives the demand for their hardware. We want to be device-agnostic, but we have to make our product work in at least one platform first. For us, that’s from Windows to Magic Leap. Over time, we will also be able to run on Mac and on other AR hardware devices.

What is on the horizon for Geopogo?

We will be working more with government entities as well as with private firms.  Our pilot projects to inform the public about the design of controversial proposed projects have been very well received. In Windsor, Ontario, we created an AR model to show how the city’s new hospital project could be sited on a city-center location rather than the planned suburban location.  That model was featured in a television interview on CBC. In San Francisco, we created an AR model to show how the city’s proposed Embarcadero Navigation Center for the homeless would look when completed on its waterfront site. That model was featured in a segment on KPIX, the local CBS station.  Our Navigation Center model attracted the attention of the InCitu planning team in New York City, who asked us to build an AR model of a proposed mixed-use project in Brooklyn so that members of the community could review the design and provide input. These pilot projects all demonstrate how AR will be widely used by cities in the project review process.  

What are some other policy issues you are keeping your eye on?

In the beginning, we were focused more on web-based technology, so I was really concerned about the government starting to regulate the internet. Other than that, I’m going to be very Berkeley-minded and say that we are very concerned about all of the major issues: environment, trade, housing, immigration, health. We must have a healthy, fair, open, growth-oriented environment for our business, our team members, and our customers to thrive. The Bay Area is now the nation’s most  expensive place to live, and we need affordable housing and accessible healthcare. We need things that make a city a place where people can afford to live and work in. 

From the startup perspective, there are more resources for startups than I ever imagined. The first incubator/accelerator program that we got into is called the Tech Futures Group. They are not-for-profit and function on government grants to promote the formation of small businesses.. So, the government, through third parties like the Tech Futures Group, is providing some support for startups to develop and succeed. Tech Futures Group also coached us on our application for SkyDeck, the Berkeley technology incubator where we are now based. 

Where did the name Geopogo come from?

I made it up on the first day. I needed a name that would be fun, easy, and wasn’t taken already because I wanted the .com, and I didn’t want any conflict with other companies. “Geo” of course has to do with the world and “pogo” suggests fun, like a pogo stick. I also wanted a name that would be internationally easy to say and to remember. We’ve spent a lot of time considering other names, but I think Geopogo is here to stay. 

What has your experience taught you about the overall health of the startup ecosystem? 

The startup ecosystem in the Bay Area is extremely strong.  Among the thousands of talented foreigners who flock to the Bay Area to participate in the ecosystem, we have hired some amazing team members from Canada, Hungary, Ukraine, Italy, Russia, China, and Korea.

There are phenomenal resources here.  I started by becoming very active in the Meetup community, where I met some of our first team members, learned about the tech industry, and had opportunities to pitch and get feedback.  The global events which happen here, such as AWE, OpenWorld, GDC, and DeveloperWeek, have been another source of team members, company exposure, and education. We have taken advantage of the incubator/accelerator network here, applying and being selected for Tech Futures Group and Berkeley SkyDeck.  Our team is supported by a wide range of local service providers, such as accountants and attorneys, who provide their services to promising startups on a deferred-fee or no-fee basis. 

One issue is the growing concentration of investment in later-stage startups, limiting growth opportunities for early-stage startups.  Another issue is the unpredictable timing of the ups and downs of individual tech sectors, such as VR. The responsibility for these issues lies in the marketplace, the speed of the tech advances, and the cycles of the economy.  I see no villains. I see no decline in the industry. 

All of the information in this profile was accurate at the date and time of publication.

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