Eye-Fi Raises $20M, Plans Platform Expansion

Eye-Fi, the Mountain View company responsible for creating the first Wi-Fi-enabled SD cards for use in digital cameras, is announcing a $20 million Series D round of funding today. The funding is led by NTT DOCOMO, the largest mobile network operator in Japan, and part of the deal will include the carrier rolling out Eye-Fi card activation direct from mobile devices on its network, marking the first time the process of setting up an Eye-Fi card hasn’t required a computer.

The decidedly post-PC initiative is starting with NTT DOCOMO, but Eye-Fi CEO Yuval Koren told us in an interview that that’s just the beginning. “[NTT DOCOMO] is our first launch partner,” he said. “Over time we expect that will proliferate across more of our channels, both in Japan and worldwide.

The move is significant because it enhances the appeal of Eye-Fi’s software piece considerably for end-users. Eye-Fi cards are at heart about reducing friction; they eliminate a crucial step in getting content from cameras to computers, and with Eye-Fi’s mobile apps and the “Direct Mode” feature launched in 2011, to Android and iOS devices, too.

Recognizing that users are more and more dependent on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, something Steve Jobs famously referred to as the “post-PC” era, is a key step to helping Eye-Fi remain a useful tool in the average person’s everyday photo management workflow. According to Koren, the move “eliminates a key perceived hurdle or barrier in terms of taking this kind of product story right into the mobile channel.”

In a world where iPhones are among the most popular cameras in use on Flickr, and with handset makers demoing smartphone cameras as impressive as Nokia’s 41-megapixel, f/2.0 808 PureView, it’s no surprise that Eye-Fi is concentrating on building out its software platform. Smartphones now account for nearly one-third of all photos taken according to NPD Group numbers released in December, and their share of the market is only growing. Targeting to a dwindling market with a product that appeals to a relatively small subset of users is not a strategy for long-term growth.

Still, Koren says that hardware is still a big part of Eye-Fi’s vision. “We continue to develop and invest in the hardware side of our platform,” he said. “Since the fall, we’ve been working quite closely with SanDisk. They distribute our product in the European region today, and with that relationship we’ve also started integrating SanDisk memory into our products, which we hadn’t done before.” Koren anticipates this partnership will only continue to grow. “As part of that partnership, we’ll look to leverage a lot of their key capabilities and bring them to consumers via the Eye-Fi platform.”

Forming and growing that relationship should help Eye-Fi’s brand status increase in the eyes of its core hardware users; SanDisk is among the most trusted makers of high-speed flash storage devices for both high end point-and-shoot and DSLR photographers. Partnering with a major player photographers already trust and use daily is a good way to boost adoption rates.

The funding will also be used to grow the Eye-Fi team, and one addition being announced today is Skype and eBay alum Michele Don Durbin. Don Durbin joins as Eye-Fi’s Vice President of Marketing, and Koren says her experience in that area will help Eye-Fi reach new customers at home in the U.S. and abroad.

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