While backpacking through rural India a few years ago, Ray Newal was struck by the way young people there used mobile phones.
"The phone was much more than just a communication tool for the younger population. It was a television ... it was a tool for self expression ... it was becoming a virtual ATM," says Mr. Newal, who at the time was vice-president of business development and content acquisition at Yahoo! Canada.
Long commutes on public transit meant "these people have a lot more downtime, and they're never home and they're never surrounded by TVs and broadband," he says.
But most mobile video streaming and downloading is designed for high-speed networks or smart phones. What about people in developing countries who have slower networks and cheaper phones?
Upon returning to Toronto Mr. Newal founded Jigsee Inc. with a mission to "democratize" access to video content. Developing countries represent lucrative markets; Asia alone is expected to have 2.14 billion mobile subscribers by 2013.
"This is a massive market," says Krista Napier, senior analyst for Canadian emerging technology at Toronto research firm International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd.
That's why IDC named Jigsee one of its 10 Canadian mobile and wireless companies to watch in 2010.
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Mr. Newal found the technical answer to the data delivery problem when he met Areef Reza. Personal experience in his native Bangladesh had inspired Mr. Reza, a computer engineer who had held senior positions at Nortel Networks and Research In Motion, to seek ways of delivering video content over less-than-ideal mobile networks.
His company, Revnx, had built software that could deliver video to mobile phones in spite of limited network bandwidth and unreliable connections. But "we were struggling in the business development side," Mr. Reza says. So last November Jigsee acquired Revnx's technology and Mr. Reza became a Jigsee partner and chief technology officer.
The usual way of sending video to a mobile phone assumes a lasting connection between the delivering server and the phone. If you lose that connection midway through the video, neither end knows where you were, so it's like being cut off in the middle of a recorded message - you must call back and start over.
Jigsee puts software on the phone that tracks what it has received. If the connection is lost, it re-establishes it and tells the server where it was. It's as if you got cut off in the middle of a conversation, called your party back and said, "So you were saying ..."
Jigsee's software is written in the popular Java programming language and can work on any phone with basic Java and video support, Mr. Reza says. Jigsee has more powerful versions for fancier phones.
Financing was a challenge, Mr. Newal says. Venture capitalists are most comfortable funding startups in their own backyards, and when Jigsee sought backers in the developing countries it sees as its immediate markets, potential investors there were hesitant about dealing with entrepreneurs from halfway around the world.
So Jigsee's founders took the company as far as they could with their own money and sweat equity. An important step was to find a first customer - not just any customer but one that would give Jigsee some credibility.
That customer was Mumbai-based Hungama Digital Media Entertainment Pvt. Ltd., one of the largest digital entertainment companies in the region. After testing Jigsee's technology - in one demonstration, company representatives watched a movie uninterrupted on a mobile phone throughout the two-hour taxi ride from Mumbai's airport to downtown - Hungama signed a three-year partnership.
Hungama is using Jigsee's technology to deliver content such as Bollywood movies to mobile phone subscribers. It will also ultimately be used in the 37 countries where Hungama delivers content through partnerships with local carriers, Mr. Newal says.
IDC's Ms. Napier says the deal with Hungama was the kind of early win a struggling startup needs.
"Being able to demonstrate that the business model works, that's what attracts investors," she says. Since then, Jigsee has put together a first round of financing with angel investors and limited participation from a few venture capitalists.
Mr. Newal says there has been plenty of interest in Jigsee's technology from other digital media companies as well as cellphone manufacturer Nokia and Internet giant Google, which wants people watching videos from its YouTube subsidiary on as many devices as possible, though all Mr. Newal will say about discussions with Google is that they are "very early-stage."
Beyond India, Mr. Newal sees promising markets in the rest of Southeast Asia, in South America and in the Middle East. And he hasn't forgotten about a second part of his vision for Jigsee: a recommendation engine for people to share links to video clips they think will interest their friends. Especially with that piece in place, he believes Jigsee could find significant markets in more developed countries, too. If only every backpacking trip led to such an idea.
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