An experimental program within the newspaper company, timeSpace provided for three startups to spend the past four months collaborating with Times staffers and receiving crucial insight into the news industry and feedback as they developed their products.
When timeSpace was first announced in January, the Times Co. said it would not take equity in startups as part of the incubator program, though it left open the possibility of investing at a later date. Geoffrey Isenman, vice president of corporate development for the Times Co., broke the news at a press event Tuesday.
Isenman says the amount of the investment is still being debated, but that each company will receive the same deal. What's more, the next class of startups at timeSpace will receive the investment at the beginning of their tenure, he says.
On Tuesday, the startup founders who formed the incubator's inaugural class presented their companies. The Times Co. had winnowed a field of about 500 applicants down to three, each of them tackling a specific challenge in the media industry. All three companies were given coworking space on the ninth floor of the Times building, where they worked in the midst of Times staffers whose expertise they drew on while creating their startups.
First up was Delve, a social news reader and recommendation engine designed to keep users on top of trends in their organization and industry. Co-founder and chief executive Sandeep Ayyappan spoke on the difficulty of separating signal from noise in today's growing flood of information. Valuable insights are lost. Even among coworkers, emails go unopened and tweets go unseen.
"You're only seeing a tiny sliver of all the interesting stuff that your colleagues are finding and sharing," Ayyappan said. "Delve changes that."
Delve's platform functions as a private social network for the employees of a given company. Each user receives personalized suggestions for what to read to stay current on her industry. Discussion tools make it easy to share knowledge with colleagues while keeping it away from competitors, and Delve archives everything so that you can find it later when you need it., Ayyappan said.
Delve's mobile app is awaiting approval in the Apple App store, he said.
Brian Muller of OpBandit, who presented next along with his co-founder, Blaine Sheldon, wants to help media companies be more relevant to their audiences. The key question, said Muller, is "What do you put front-and-center of all the content that you produce?" To answer that, OpBandit provides an analytics dashboard that tracks engagement metrics and allows site administrators to create alternate versions of each piece of content.
With OpBandit, a news outlet's home page could be different for readers in one part of the country than for those in another, or could differ depending on time of day or other factors. For instance, some readers might see a different header image for a story than others. In short, OpBandit aims to promote the right version of the right content at the right time to maximize page views and engagement.
The final startup, Mahaya, demoed a product called Seen that represents an effort to curate "the real-time web" in which most news stories live and die. "Our social feeds are the first draft of history" now, having taken over that role from newspapers and cable TV news, said Tarikh Korula, Mahaya's co-founder. But social feeds are ephemeral; content disappears quickly, never to be seen again. In light of that, said Korula, "We're trying to create a coherent first draft."
To that end, Seen, which is in beta, tracks public events, scans social media for the best content surrounding them and displays it in a layout that looks like a cross between a Tumblr photo feed and a magazine spread. The content is archived and updated continually throughout the event, so Seen users can keep up on events of interest, everything from the Electric Zoo Festival to protests in Turkey.
Eventually, Seen hopes to function like "DVR for anything that happens in the world," Korula said.
For the Times Co., investing in digital startups is not new. Until now, however, it has done so only as an institutional investor at later stages in the life cycle of companies, and has never led a funding round, Isenman told Entrepreneur. That is what makes Wednesday's announcement such big news.
The purpose of the timeSpace investments is twofold, Isenman says. "One is financial, and the second is that notion of having skin in the game, and signaling our commitment."