Illustration by Martin O’Neill for Boldness in Business 2015 special report
© Martin O’Neill

Open Garden inhabits a warehouse on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The company’s founders knocked the walls through to create windows and share the building with the Bay Area BBQ and Grilling School and an establishment that teaches the police how to motorcycle.

It might not look like the home of a groundbreaking technology that has the potential to threaten authoritarian governments, but then again the start-up’s FireChat app has been adopted by Iraqis evading government censorship of social media, political protesters in Hong Kong and a Russian opposition leader writing to his supporters from a police van.

The app creates a “private internet” that can work without a mobile connection or WiFi and was launched less than a year ago. The French government’s chief technology officer advised people to use it after the attack on satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in Paris, when he feared mobile phone networks could be overloaded.

FireChat uses mesh networking to allow messages to bounce from smartphone to smartphone until they reach their reader. If one user is connected to WiFi, not only can everyone chat but they can also use the internet. Some 5m people downloaded the app in its first few months.

Howard Hartenbaum, a venture capitalist at California-based August Capital who previously backed Skype and has invested in FireChat, says the technology has the power to transform the way people communicate. “This could be the next version of the internet,” he adds. When everyone in the world has a smartphone, he says, they could bypass the traditional infrastructure of the internet by downloading FireChat to “network on the fly”.

The company was founded by Micha Benoliel, now chief executive, and Stanislav Shalunov, chief technology officer. Benoliel previously worked on the early technology enabling people to call mobile phones and landlines via Skype. Shalunov had worked on, among other things, the protocol Apple uses to push out software updates.

The pair decided to become partners in 2010, with the vision of making phones that were as easy to use outdoors as at home. Benoliel says to do this he knew he wanted to connect phones directly to each other. “I understood that everyone would have a smartphone in their pocket that would be so powerful but that they wouldn’t be able to connect to one another directly.”

Shalunov says he had a similar idea in 2001 that was dismissed by a US National Science Foundation programme director as “science fiction”. Open Garden’s co-founders originally thought they were addressing a problem of convenience — namely, creating an app that would allow users to continue communicating on underground trains or at music festivals when mobile networks stop working as too many people try to use them at once.

FireChat’s potential for protesters quickly became apparent. Within 10 days of the launch in March 2014 it was the number one app in Taiwan after student protesters downloaded it, worried that the government wanted to shut down access to the internet.

Since then Open Garden has noticed peaks in use of the service around the world during protests. Benoliel was on a stopover in Hong Kong last September when Open Garden noted a rush of downloads of FireChat — 100,000 in the first 24 hours and 500,000 within a week, all in an area with only 7m residents.

“With FireChat and a phone nobody can stop our communications,” Benoliel says, adding that it was the “perfect tool” for protesters to organise themselves in big chat-rooms, arranging supplies and sending information. Even though the Hong Kong authorities did not shut the mobile networks down, they became so congested that people continued to use FireChat.


Downloads by protesters made FireChat Taiwan’s top app within 10 days of launch

The app was launched as a prototype to explore how Open Garden’s mesh-networking technology could be employed in a consumer-friendly way. At first FireChat offered a very basic list of open chat-rooms, but the company has since added features such as verified users — a concept borrowed from Twitter that lets people prove they are who they say they are.

Open Garden’s engineers have a long list of features they are keen to develop, not least private messaging. At the moment, all chats on the platform are public.

The company also wants to expand internationally — at present it has just 15 people around the world. The start-up has been cautious, raising much less than many others in Silicon Valley, with a round of $11m in March last year. Investors include Ram Shriram, a founding board member of Google and founder of Sherpalo Ventures; Nikesh Arora, former chief business officer of Google and now vice-chairman of SoftBank Corp; and Xavier Niel, the French telecoms billionaire.

The Google connection is strong: Google offered to buy Open Garden in September 2013, but the latter’s founders considered the offer too low. They are now discussing funding with other investors.

The company has attracted a flood of interest from other start-ups wanting to strike revenue-sharing deals to keep users on their apps that little bit longer. Open Garden says it has also been approached by leading players in the games industry keen to encourage people to continue using their apps on trains or planes, for example. Open Garden’s software would allow games companies to increase the number of advertisements they show to users or to sell more virtual goods.

Another area Open Garden is exploring is using the technology to connect devices other than phones. The so-called “internet of things” is set to grow enormously, as everything from lightbulbs to thermostats is connected to the internet. At the moment, connecting such devices to a conventional WiFi or mobile network is expensive and awkward, says Benoliel. It is not cost-effective to pay for a WiFi connection for a sensor, say, or easy to enter a username and password combination.

“That is where the money is. The market of the internet of things is a huge opportunity,” he says, waving a thumb-sized tracker device that uses Open Garden’s mesh-networking technology. The tracker can be attached to a key ring or bag and found by using a phone and the same network on which FireChat runs.

Christophe Daligault, chief marketing officer and an early investor in Open Garden, says the company’s long list of developers shows the validity of its idea. But he adds that Open Garden’s priority at present is not to generate revenue but to increase its user base, in much the same way as chat apps WhatsApp and Viber have done.

FireChat’s user base is still small — 5m downloads compared with WhatsApp’s 700m monthly active users — and is growing more “in bursts” than others, says Daligault.

It is smartphone growth — particularly in emerging markets, where data plans can be costly — that will help FireChat thrive, says Benoliel. “We have no idea what a planet with 5bn smartphones will look like,” he says. “Today there are 1.4bn,” he adds, suggesting there will be a three- to fourfold increase in the next three years.

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