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Virtual event platforms have gained significant traction in a year marked by social distancing. Berlin-based Wonder is part of a new crop of contenders and promises to make large online gatherings more sociable.

The startup, which was founded as Yotribe in April, today announced that it has raised a substantial $11 million seed round of funding led by EQT Ventures, with participation from BlueYard Capital.

Much as large in-person meetups can segue into more intimate bubbles as people begin to network, Wonder aims to enable smaller, more organic video-based interactions within a larger virtual conference setup. This is reminiscent of features in numerous other events platforms, many of which have breakout spaces. But Wonder’s maplike interface allows guests to see at a glance who is speaking to whom and move their avatars around to join conversations in a virtual room.

Above: Wonder

The idea is that online meetings are typically “top-down,” with organizers dictating the structure and layout. This leaves little room for guests to maneuver and reduces the chance of spontaneous encounters and chats. Whether it’s possible to truly recreate physical meetups in this way isn’t clear, as real-world socializing and networking rely on social cues and nonverbal communication.

But Wonder strives to mimic real-world social cues through two core actions. If someone wants to initiate a conversation, they can direct their “nose” (a little dot in front of the avatar) toward a person or group, and the recipient can respond by directing their “nose” back toward the initiator. Another option is to “slowly approach each other,” similar to the way you might in a live networking situation. “If someone is not interested, they would just walk away and go somewhere else,” Wonder cofounder Pascal Steck told VentureBeat. “Besides that, people can invite others to form a circle — or to join an existing one — without walking up to them.”

This kind of technology may be particularly well-suited to specific corporate encounters, such as company away days, departmental meetings, or other scenarios where people are already familiar with each other. But Wonder can be used for any type of video-based networking event, much as Zoom and others are currently being used for everything from social gatherings to dance classes. And there is already at least one similar tool being developed by New York-based Gatherly. So “spatial video chats” could become a new format in the virtual meeting space.

More broadly, a number of events platforms have raised significant investments over the past few months, including Hopin, which last month secured $125 million at a $2.1 billion valuation, and Bizzabo, which attracted a mammoth $138 million after being forced to add virtual events to its existing offline events platform. Similar companies that have secured sizable investments this year include Hubilo, WelcomeRun The World, and Airmeet.

Hybrid

Wonder was founded in April by Stephane Roux, Leonard Witteler, and Pascal Steck, and the product was essentially an extension of Witteler’s first coding project, which he developed in his spare time a few years ago and tested with family and friends. With global lockdowns on track to extend throughout 2020 (and likely well into 2021), now is as good a time as any to bring the product to market.

In its short tenure, Wonder said it has secured customers spanning a broad gamut, from individuals to corporate entities, including NASA, SAP, and Deloitte, as well as educational bodies like Harvard. With 200,000 users, the company said it has seen 30% week-on-week growth since its April beta launch in terms of active users, based entirely on word of mouth. One big question mark hangs over its business model, however, as the platform is currently free, with little indication as to its eventual pricing structure. “We are thinking about introducing pricing in mid-2021,” Steck said.

With $11 million in the bank, the company is well-financed to continue building out its product, but unlike some of the incumbents in the space, it said it won’t be focused on providing customers with interaction or engagement data anytime soon. This is on its longer-term roadmap, however. “Our main focus is the guest experience,” Steck said. “We believe that delivering the best possible guest experience beats everything else. One great side effect of the virtual space is that anyone — including the host — has a good overview of the dynamics of the event, and therefore a good understanding of interactions and engagement.”

But there is a growing sense that even if businesses do embrace physical gatherings with the same enthusiasm as they did before the pandemic, virtual events will remain part of a new hybrid approach. One of the reasons for this is that companies have now realized how much potential virtual events hold in terms of opening things up to a wider audience. Virtual events also give event organizers valuable data that is difficult to gather in the brick-and-mortar world, spanning registrations, attendance, sessions watched, questions submitted, messages sent, connections made, and more.

Leading European technology conference Web Summit recently confirmed that it will be going with a hybrid model next year — using an events platform it developed entirely in-house. Reuters also said it would be adopting a hybrid events model next year, combining local networking meetups with online incarnations after it saw some success with this approach during the pandemic.

As the world slowly transitions back to some semblance of normality in 2021 and beyond, Wonder is betting on a hybrid future.

“We believe that in a hybrid event setting, having a lively virtual space where virtual guests actually meet, talk, and mingle trumps everything else,” Steck said. “We will let hosts link the offline elements into the virtual ones through feeds and other interactions. This way, real social interactions take place offline, as well as online at the same time.”

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