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Corporate Startups 6 min

Did you know that Google was behind the company that created Pokémon Go?

Corporate Startup Story of the Week

You probably remember the launch of the infamous Pokémon Go game. For a couple of months in the summer of 2016 (yes, it’s been that long!), the streets of most cities were flooded by people from all ages walking around holding their phones up while looking to catch new Pokémon, find rewards, or battle a gym leader.

Almost overnight, Pokémon Go became a global phenomenon, breaking all-time records and becoming the most downloaded app in the first week ever. It’s estimated that the game made $470 million in the first 80 days after launch through micro-transactions only. In May 2017, Niantic shared that players had collectively walked the distance from Earth past the edge of the solar system, more or less. A year later, the app had been downloaded 800 million times worldwide.

There’s no doubt that it was, and surprisingly still is, one of the most successful mobile games ever made. But did you know that the company that created it started out as an internal startup at Google?

The man behind it all is John Hanke, and that wasn’t his first disruptive endeavor. In 2000 he co-founded Keyhole, a software development firm that laid the ground for what is now Google Earth. He then became Vice President of Product Management for the Google Geo division where he led the team responsible for creating tools like Google Maps and Google Street View. In 2010, he realized that his entrepreneurial bug was still alive and well, and it needed to be set free. Hanke went to Google’s CEO Larry Page with the idea of leaving to start a new company, but he left the room with the opportunity to pursue his goals without going anywhere. He instead established a safe playground to develop a startup mentality within the corporation, with all the freedom that comes with it. 

“I felt like the other things always took priority. Today’s products and the immediate needs of those products are going to take up all of your attention, and it’s very difficult to carve out the time and attention to just start from a blank slate and think about the future and then to go out and really focus on building things that are further out. […] I guess that’s the advantage of doing it in this sort of startup thing instead. We didn’t have any existing responsibilities. We did start from a blank slate.”

John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic, Inc.

Thus Niantic Labs was born in Google’s downtown San Francisco office. 

The name “Niantic” came from one of the ships that got dragged on the shore of San Francisco during the gold rush in the 1800s. Over the years, the city was built over these ships, and nowadays you wouldn’t know if you were standing over one of them. It’s meant to remind us that there’s so much we don’t know about the world and that, despite all the information on the internet, it’s hard to find out about these things when you’re actually there.

The internal incubator started off with the goal of bridging the gap between people that smartphones are constantly widening. Instead of helping us connect with each other and every aspect of our lives, mobile technology has the tendency of tearing social interactions apart, diverting us from reality and bringing our attention away from what is physically happening around us.

The Niantic team didn’t have a product yet, but they had the data, engineers, and resources from Google, and they had the drive, focus, and liberty necessary to create something revolutionary.

Two years later, Field Trip was launched, a location-based guide that runs in the phone’s background and notifies users when they get close to something interesting in the city they’re in. Niantic’s second product and first augmented reality game was born just two months later. Ingress is a multi-player mobile game that creates an alternative world only visible through the screen of the user’s phone. With a continuous open narrative, Ingress allows players to choose a ‘faction’ that fights for control over ‘portals’ located at places of cultural significance, such as landmarks and monuments.

Image borrowed from Ingress' Facebook page

These apps not only helped Niantic to push the boundaries of location-based virtual and augmented reality, but the pedestrian data collected also assisted Google in creating better maps.

In 2014, on April Fool’s Day, they collaborated with Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Game Freak to create ‘Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge’, an app that allowed users to capture Pokémon while exploring the world through Google Maps. This idea ignited the spark that later became the Pokémon Go game.

In August 2015 Google announced its restructuring into Alphabet Inc, which triggered Niantic to spin out into its own independent entity in October of the same year. However, they didn’t leave empty-handed, securing an investment of around $35 million from Google, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company. That was also the year they announced a collaboration with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company for the development of Pokémon Go.

“Niantic has shown the great potential of mixing geolocation technology, dynamic storytelling, and innovative game design, and we’re excited to continue supporting the team on their journey.“

Don Harrison, VP of Corporate Development at Google

Niantic has since secured several other investment rounds and is growing at a steady pace with the success of Pokémon Go and the acquisition of several companies such as Evertoon, Escher Reality, Matrix Mill and Seismic Games.

In 2017 they partnered with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and WB Games San Francisco for the development of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite under the Portkey Games banner. The game is expected to use a similar technology and gameplay as Pokémon Go and should be released in 2019. 

Earlier this year the company shared a sneak peek into their long-term project, the Niantic Real World Platform. The intention is to share their technology with third-party developers around the world, providing even more realistic AR experiences, advancing the technology, and perhaps one day delivering planet-scale AR. 

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Mariana Abreu

Innovation Journalist & Creative Content Creator

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