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Amid the red carpets and celebrity glitz and glamour, Hollywood is increasingly shining bright as a hotbed of technology startup activity. Fueled by access to film studios, storytellers and stars, more and more innovative digital entrepreneurs are setting up shop in the entertainment capital of the world to make their mark on screens of all sizes.
Take Ashley Crowder, for example. Formerly an engineer at Gulf Stream and Northrop Grumman, the University of Southern California graduate made her entrepreneurial debut in Los Angeles in 2012. That’s when she co-founded an augmented reality-driven entertainment tech company called Vntana with her friend and fellow USC alum Benjamin Conway.
“The tech scene here is so great,” Crowder said. “This is where all the networking events are to meet venture capitalists and to meet other engineers. It’s just the best place to network. I was driving [to L.A.] from Hermosa Beach three to four times a week, and I was finally like, ‘Let’s just move!’ This is just where everything is.”
Crowder’s nascent startup, headquartered in Van Nuys a short zip up the freeway from Hollywood (depending on traffic, of course), pioneered a unique interactive hologram experience that seamlessly marries the worlds of tech and entertainment—and in a really cool, futuristic way.
Vntana’s patented hardware and software system allows consumers to actively engage with interactive holograms of famous athletes, celebrities and products. To boost customer reach, in addition to wowing users with trippy moving holograms that feel like they’re straight out of Star Wars (we know; we recently tried them out in Hollywood fittingly across from the Walk of Fame), the scalable platform captures user email addresses and social media handles.
The company’s innovative technology, displayed in small, portable kiosks and large, life-sized displays at various events and venues, has been used by several Fortune 500 brands — Microsoft, NBC Universal, Dell, Virgin Atlantic, Nike, Intel, Pepsi, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus among them — to add future-forward flash to celebrity endorsement deals. It’s also used to launch new products, shows, movies and more.
“Being based in Los Angeles, Vntana works with all of the major studios as well, bringing characters to life to engage consumers and launch new titles,” Crowder said. “Recently, at Comic-Con, we created an experience for ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” TV show, where you could sword fight with a hologram of Captain Hook, and, after the experience, users received a video of the experience that they could share on social.”
In addition to ABC, Disney, Nickelodeon and Marvel are a few of the other entertainment industry heavies Vntana has supplied with eye-catching holograms in the heart of the Hollywood entertainment machine and, in some cases, across the country.
Crowder says being anchored out of Los Angeles is a big benefit Vntana, not only due to the exceptional access to celebrities, digital animators and to the region’s historic movie and TV studio system, but also because of the entertainment industry’s thirst for the latest, greatest digital visual and special effects tech on the whole.
“With holograms, content is so important, whether it’s the celebrities or the characters we’re manipulating, and L.A. is a great place for that because of all of the studios being based here,” she said. “L.A. and Southern California have become the hub of virtual reality and augmented reality technology, so it’s really an ideal place for Vntana to be based.”
And, on a broader level, L.A. is increasingly becoming a wise place for most any tech startup to launch out of, judging from L.A.’s ranking among the leading top 25 American tech hubs in the latest Innovation That Matters study, a joint project between Free Enterprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776. The city boasts some 30 startup incubators and 20 accelerators, many of them entertainment-tech focused, with $3 billion in venture capital streaming into the startup ecosystem last year alone.
Apart from Vntana, some of the other standout virtual- and augmented reality-focused small companies to take Hollywood to new dimensions amid the region’s tech startup boom are: Within, a Venice-based provider of curated cinematic virtual reality content; Survios, a Culver City-based maker of immersive-tech gaming and virtual reality content; NextVR, a Laguna Beach-based upstart that captures and delivers live and on-demand virtual reality experiences; and Prologue Immersive, a Culver City-based creator of virtual and augmented reality data visualization content.
“We launched in L.A. because L.A. understands the intersection of content and technology better than any other city,” Crowder said. “Plus, L.A. graduates more engineers than any other city in the U.S., which is a huge benefit to any technology company like ours.”
Fresh entertainment-tech talent is as abundant in Los Angeles’s “Silicon Beach,” as it is in Silicon Valley, if not more abundant. In fact, colleges and universities in Los Angeles County churn out more engineering graduates than any other county in all of California—even more than Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley.
Crowder also chose to start Vntana in L.A. because of the smaller, more close-knit and collaborative nature of the local tech startup community. She says, for the most part, it’s open and reciprocal, particularly when compared with larger digital entrepreneurship epicenters, such as Silicon Valley or New York City (aka “Silicon Alley”).
“The startup scene here, while growing, is still smaller than that of Silicon Valley,” she said, “But, because of that, people are much more willing to help you. It’s much more of a community and it’s a lot less cutthroat because there’s less competition to vie with.”