Last weekend Disney Channel aired a four-day original movie marathon—my inner pre-teen freaked out. One of my favorites was the 1999 classic, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. For those unfamiliar, Zenon is a 13-year-old girl who lives in outer space. Spaceships and holograms are commonplace in her intergalactic world.
But holograms aren’t just in Disney movies. PRSONAS, a self-service hologram company out of Durham, just landed $525,000 from investors after winning major Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and Procter & Gamble as customers.
Via life-size computer-generated men and women powered by artificial intelligence, PRSONAS helps companies deliver marketing messages or customer support without requiring actual human interaction. PRSONAS’ holograms also speak multiple languages and collect information like conversion rates and engagement duration from the people they interact with in a store or trade show booth or at a reception or concierge desk.
The Durham startup's ability to land more than 40 major corporate customers in two years while bootstrapping the business won it a lineup of regional investors. But there is more to the story.
The PRSONAS syndicate shows that our startup community’s mission of graduating successful entrepreneurs into angel investing is working.
“There’s people who exited that are reinvesting in the community,” says PRSONAS CEO and co-founder David Rose. “So when we exit, hopefully I can do the same thing.”
Rose also secured more than half of the company’s funding from North Carolina funds outside the Triangle. There’s $94K from the Charlotte Angel Fund and dollars from Inception Micro Angel Funds (IMAF) like IMAF Coastal Plains out of Rocky Mount and two other IMAF funds in Greenville and Fayetteville.
“I know everyone is talking about needing capital,” says Rose. “I had no idea these guys even existed.”
One relationship that’s grown since that time is with Greg Brown, administrator of the Charlotte Angel Fund. In February, he spoke with Rose on recommendation of IMAF Coastal Plains’ administrator. PRSONAS was invited to pitch at CAF’s monthly meeting that same month and the angel fund did its due diligence in March. By April 30, CAF’s members approved the investment. This is CAF’s sixth investment since its formation in December 2013.
Here’s why CAF invested in PRSONAS, according to Brown:
The cofounding team—Rose and Chuck Rinker— know their product, but they can also sell it. They are a great balance of commercial and technical skills, Brown says.
Rose was on the founding team of $1B ADP TotalSource Unit. He also held six Fortune 500 leadership roles and was involved in a handful of both venture-backed and self-funded startups. But Rose says his background is boring compared to his partner’s.
Rinker, the hologram technology’s inventor, previously developed black-ops technology and worked with NASA on space borne avionics. He was also a game director for EA Sports for Madden & NCAA Football, before starting his digital marketing company nuMedia Innovations. He has an extensive educational background in topics like electrical engineering, computer science, advanced 3D animation, multimedia technologies and digital audio.
Proof of concept—Since PRSONAS pitched CAF with more than 40 customers already under its belt, it showed marketability. Because it uses technology t’s an interesting product in a promising space, says Brown.
Channel partners—The company has compelling growth plans. PRSONAS will launch a reseller program with a strategic partner later this year.
Profitability—PRSONAS bootstrapped for the first few years, with support and resources from Rinker's nuMedia. It was profitable because it had to be, says Rose. The funding will allow the team to hire in-house engineers and creative types to grow the company.
“Sharing resources is a great way to start a company, but not a great way to scale it," Rose says.
PRSONAS holograms can be seen at trade shows, conventions and retail stores across the world. The company worked with HP on the HP World Tour in London and partnered with Toyota last year for thelaunch of the new RAV4. Part of its selling point is the ability for brands to make physical changes to their holograms in order to reflect their company's image, and using only a self-service cloud platform.
Here's an example of the hologram used by Microsoft at its flagship retail location in Seattle:
Kathy, the PRSONAS hologram retail product specialist, interacts with customers at the Microsoft retail store in Seattle, WA. Credit: PRSONAS
Sarah Headley is a former ExitEvent intern. The 2015 UNC-Chapel Hill grad moved back to Charlotte after graduation where she is a freelance writer and works in digital marketing. Sarah loves to talk about UNC basketball, GIFs and country music.