Spotzer, deploying tech to enhance museum visits, raises first funding

A gallery at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. (MFA photo.)
A gallery at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. (MFA photo.)

Think about the wall plaques or audio guides that shape your visit to a museum: They’re no different for visitors more interested in history than art, or those who want to dive deeply into a particular artifact and skim past others.

A Boston startup called Spotzer wants to change that, by letting you use a smartphone as your guide, and deploying Bluetooth “beacon” technology throughout museums so that you can chart your own course. The company just got its start last year, but it has already done pilot tests with institutions like the Boston Athenaeum, MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, and New York’s Neue Galerie — and Spotzer founder Brendan Ciecko is in the midst of wrapping the company’s first funding round.

Update: On February 18, Spotzer announced that it had changed its name to Cuseum, and that it had raised $1.2 million from a group of investors including Foundry Group’s FG Angels, Atlas Venture’s Boston Syndicates, Seavest Capital Partners, Drummond Road Capital, and New Gen Partners. Angel investors including Paul English, Joshua Schachter, Wayne Chang, Colin Angle, Nicole Stata, David Chang, and Jit Saxena also participated.

spotzerAt our recent interview, Ciecko pulled out two examples of beacons from Estimote, and talked about how much smaller and cheaper they’ve been getting. (The smaller beacon in his hand costs about $10.) With a Spotzer app loaded onto your phone, beacons can relay information to you based on where you’re standing inside a gallery, and what’s in front of you. If you’ve been spending time absorbing a Van Gogh, perhaps the app serves up a suggestion to visit an exhibit of contemporary Dutch photography in another part of the museum.

The app will be able to direct you to works that Facebook friends have “bookmarked” or commented on, Ciecko says. “The big picture is that we are building the social and engagement layer that ties all of the world’s art and culture together,” he says. In addition to friends, Ciecko says you might be able to use an art critic as your guide. “Imaging being able to go to a museum and quickly pull up Sebastian Smee’s highlights, and his thoughts about those works,” Ciecko says.

While some museums do want to explore charging visitors to use the app, Ciecko says he is an advocate for keeping it free. The value of bringing in new kinds of audiences, and ideally cultivating new members, he says, “is much greater than any dollar amount you’d be able to charge.” Ciecko says that within a few weeks, the startup will announce the first permanent roll-out of its system.

Ciecko says he didn’t grow up going to museums. “The first time I went on a curated tour of a museum — that experience of hearing that much depth and insight — you think to yourself, how many people didn’t have that opportunity?” he says. “We want to enable that education element, and make that accessible to people from all walks of life.”

Ciecko has an interesting track record in the cultural sphere: as a teenager in the Holyoke area, he began building websites for musicians like Katy Perry, Mick Jagger, OK Go, and Van Morrison. That business grew into Ten Minute Media, a digital agency. Ciecko left his role as creative director there at the end of 2013 to focus on Spotzer full-time.

The eight-person company operates out of PayPal’s StartTank space in the Financial District. Investors in the company’s current funding round include Attic Ventures; PayPal executive David Chang; Nicole Stata of Boston Seed Capital; Paul English of Blade; Joshua Schacter, founder of Delicious; and Smarterer founder David Balter. Ciecko said he expects the round to amount to about $1 million.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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