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Swell raises $5.4M to ‘reinvent news radio’ around your preferences

Swell wants to expand your mind.

Today the startup “reinventing news radio” closed a $5.4 million round of funding, led by elite firm Draper Fisher Jurveston. Swell provides a Pandora-like service for listening to podcasts. The iOS app delivers an audio stream of up-to-date, curated news and information. Users can skip content that doesn’t interest them or bookmark interesting things for later. The app learns from your behavior to make personalized recommendations.

Swell uses pretty advanced technology to figure out what you want to listen to. It considers external ratings of the content, how long you listen to the program, how closely topics match your expressed interests, the Swell community’s overall judgement of the content, and the judgement of content by users similar to you. All this information is combined to crack what piques your interest.

“Swell is designed with the belief that a user’s time is valuable,” said CEO G.D. “Ram” Rumkumar to VentureBeat. “The more time a user listens to content, the more it understands that the user likes that type of content. We spend a lot of time driving or exercising, often bored. Swell was created with the vision of using that time to stay informed and learn. The market opportunity for the product is large – in the US alone commuters spend over 500 million hours/week. It was challenging to bring together design and technology in a simple product that delivers content with minimal controls.”

News is a highly competitive category in the app stores. The sheer magnitude of content on the web and the growth of mobile technology has created a crop of startups trying to build a better way to consume information. Podcasts are one method, as well as streaming radio apps, news services like Flipboard, Prismatic, Summly (acquired by Yahoo), and TuneIn and Umano which turns print articles into audio.

Curating context is now an important part of the mobile experience, and in many ways a requisite for success. Consumers no longer want to search for content — we want it presented to us in an intelligent and relevant way, and discovery is transitioning away from search towards personalization. This trend is evident in dating apps, business recommendation resources, e-commerce, advertising, and, of course, media.

Swell offers free and unlimited streaming to content from iTunes, NPR, ABC, BBC, TED, ESPN and has a five star rating in the app store. Ramkumar holds a PhD in computer science from Stanford and previously founded image recognition startup Snaptell, which Amazon acquired in 2009. Ramkumar founded Swell in 2012 with cofounders Keshav Menon and Dominic Hughes with the mission of becoming the world’s most relevant and easy-to-use audio news service.

Google Ventures, InterWest Partners, Correlation Ventures, and Draper Nexus Ventures also participated in this round. Swell said that returning users listen to the service for over 100 minutes per week and over 40 minutes per day on average. It is popular with commuters who can make use of their unproductive hours. This first round of institutional funding adds to the $1.8 million in seed financing Swell previously raised from Google Ventures, with Charles River Ventures, DFJ, Andreessen Horowtiz, and Inspovation Ventures. The company is based in San Francisco.

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