Jana Grabs $57M to Bring Mobile Internet to India and Rest of World

Increasingly, U.S. tech companies aren’t battling for users on their home turf—they’re competing in the developing world.

The latest reminder of that is Jana, a Boston-based software startup that today announced a $57 million Series C round led by new investor Verizon Ventures. Previous backers Spark Capital and Publicis Groupe also invested. That brings Jana’s total venture capital haul to more than $93 million.

The users of Jana’s app, mCent, are all located in emerging markets, where smartphones are proliferating rapidly, but users often struggle to access the Internet because they don’t have a mobile data plan and buying data a la carte is expensive. Meanwhile, global brands and advertisers have trouble reaching potential customers in these locales.

Jana helps solve that problem by connecting the two. An mCent user engages with sponsored content—primarily by downloading and testing out third-party apps—and in exchange, receives free mobile data.

It’s an idea that has taken off in the past few years. Boston-based Aquto offers a similar service. Facebook’s Free Basics program is another example. It enables users to connect with certain apps and websites without it counting against their data usage, a practice called “zero-rating.” That controversial program was effectively banned in India this month for violating net neutrality rules.

As Fortune pointed out, once Jana’s users receive the sponsored data, they can visit any website; that’s a key difference with Free Basics, whose users are restricted to certain websites and apps.

In a press release today, Jana boasted that it has double the number of Indian users as Free Basics. Jana didn’t specify how many Indian users it has, but it has more than 30 million total users worldwide. Jana’s app is available in 93 countries across Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Next up, Jana has its sights set on launching in China, the world’s most populous country.

The company has partnerships with more than 3,000 brands—including Amazon, Twitter, and WeChat—and 311 mobile carriers, which means it has the capability to connect with more than 4.5 billion smartphones around the globe.

“By 2020, more than 5 billion people will be mobile, and new, engaging ways to access data will become increasingly important worldwide,” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong said in the news release. Armstrong has joined Jana’s advisory board.

Nathan Eagle

Nathan Eagle

For years, Jana co-founder and CEO Nathan Eagle has been experimenting with ways to facilitate mobile technology access in developing countries. When he was a university professor in Kenya about a decade ago, he helped develop a system that enabled rural nurses to send text messages to centralized blood banks about the blood supply levels at local hospitals. But the project hit a major snag because the price of sending a text message was “a surprising fraction of their day’s wage,” Eagle told Xconomy in 2011.

Eagle helped solve the problem with software that would send the nurses about 10 cents worth of airtime—enough to cover the cost of the text message, plus a small reward on top.

That project sparked the idea for Jana, which got started in 2008 as Txteagle. The company’s focus was different then: it rewarded mobile phone users with airtime in exchange for participating in surveys and other market research sponsored by advertisers and researchers.

The company rebranded as Jana in 2011 and launched the mCent app in 2014.

It’s tough to say who will emerge as the leader in the sponsored data industry. But Jana now has a lot more money to make its bid.

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