Silicon Valley VC invests US$10M in Ottawa-born retail tech startup ThreeKit

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A made-in-Ottawa application for online retail has attracted the eye of a well-heeled Silicon Valley investor.

Serial entrepreneur Godard Abel announced Thursday he’s leading a US$10-million seed round in ThreeKit, a 3D imaging solution from former Hollywood visual effects engineer Ben Houston.

Abel’s resum​é includes multiple exits, selling off firms to the likes of Oracle and Salesforce. He’ll now take on the executive chairman role at ThreeKit and has installed an executive team he’s familiar with from his previous companies. A few members of the new management team, such as president and chief operating officer Joachim Klein and senior vice-president of sales John Kim, are also involved in the investment round.

ThreeKit helps store owners and major brands such as Crate and Barrel to represent their products with configurable 3D models. The 40-person firm is headquartered in Chicago but was founded in Ottawa around 2014. Roughly 28 of the firm’s employees are based in the capital, and the company has been growing steadily from its office at the corner of Metcalfe and Cooper streets.

Hollywood roots

Houston founded the firm after a 15-year career in Hollywood that saw his software used in blockbuster franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Following this influx of capital he’ll move to the chief technical officer role, where he can focus more on the product side of the company.

While Houston admits the glamour of Hollywood makes for an exciting life, he says the bright lights often lead to burnout. For the sake of his lifestyle and well-being, he resolved a few years back to use his skills elsewhere.

Ben Houston
ThreeKit founder Ben Houston on an episode of Techopia Live in 2017. File photo.

“While it's super glamorous to work on and be associated with a blockbuster release, the hours are just horrible,” he tells Techopia, reflecting on the tight production timelines tied to Hollywood’s biggest films.

Houston realized a few years back the same tech that goes into creating explosive car chases and fantastic beasts could be repurposed in e-commerce, as websites increasingly became capable of handling 3D representations of products. Furniture, watches, sheds and custom football helmets are among the popular items rendered via the firm’s tech.

While ThreeKit can create product models from a few pictures, the concept is especially useful for manufacturers that sell their own wares and already have the original design files on-hand. In the past eight months, ThreeKit has created more than two million images for Crate and Barrel’s website.

Highly configurable

Houston says the firm’s solution is especially useful in cases such as customizable furniture. ThreeKit can show online shoppers each combination of fabrics, colours and couch legs, for example.

This has a big impact on both purchases and returns, Houston says. If a buyer can’t see the product they’re buying, they’ll have to guess: If they think it looks better than it does and buy it only to be disappointed, they’re more likely to return it; if they think it looks worse, they won’t make the purchase in the first place.

“If you can show an image of the product that results from all of the options, it's a 20 to 40 per cent higher conversion rate, because they don't have to guess,” Houston says.

The ThreeKit appeal goes further: Houston says he’s been happy to see the application used on tablets in showrooms, where buyers can get a feel for the furniture they’re about to buy and then fit up the exact configuration they want in their home.

“Sitting on couches is really important,” he says. “You sit on it there, you make sure it feels good. But then you can pick the exact one that meets your needs.”

Removing this e-commerce pain point registers with Abel.

“There has been a critical gap in the ability of brands to provide engaging product experiences in their web stores, but ThreeKit is solving for this by fulfilling the touch and feel needs consumers have when shopping online,” Abel said in a statement.

“It’s clear the company is leading a new generation of immersive and experiential commerce, and I look forward to accelerating its momentum to be a world market leader in 3D visualization technology.”

A release states that ThreeKit will put its seed round towards talent acquisition and product development.

The company is already moving onto the next wave in e-commerce, augmented reality. With AR, consumers can place the store’s 3D models in their homes and change the configuration to what works best in their space.