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Ideas Made to Matter

Consumer products

Creating the iPod of the art world

Digital books existed before the Kindle, and MP3s were around before iTunes and iPods, but it took those products and platforms to make electronic books and music ubiquitous. San Francisco startup Depict is poised to make the same impact on the art world.

Co-founded by Kim Gordon, MBA ’13, and Shambhavi Kadam SB ’06 (Aerospace Engineering), MBA ’12, the company has created a digital frame with a proprietary 4K display that can be controlled with a smartphone app, as well as a cloud-based marketplace for digital art. New collectors can buy limited edition pieces for as low as five dollars and display them on screens they already own; tech industry mavens such as former Facebook exec Dave Morin and Shasta Ventures founder Rob Coneybeer have pre-ordered the $1,800 frame.

Gordon studied Chinese literature at Barnard College; upon graduating she moved to Shanghai and was an early employee at clean energy startups there. She loved the vibe of small young teams and decided to go to business school and start her own company. “I very specifically wanted to go to MIT because of the technology and engineering focus,” she says.

Gordon grew up making art, studying art history, and visiting museums with her mom, an attorney who collects art and antiques. She wanted to pair her passions for startups and the visual arts. At MIT Sloan she partnered with Kadam and the pair pitched the frame. But the picture wasn’t clear at the beginning. Both Gordon and Senior Lecturer Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, say the idea needed to work its way through an iterative process of disciplined entrepreneurship. “At first the idea didn’t thrill me,” Aulet says. “But I’ve learned not to tell people what their idea should be. And I knew with that team, they would not be defeated.”

Gordon and Kadam spent a summer in the MIT Global Founders Skills Accelerator, rehashing their plan until it crystallized. They also took advantage of Trust Center mentors Charles Kane and Christina Chase and enrolled in Building an Entrepreneurial Venture: Advanced Tools and Techniques.

Their hard work paid dividends. The duo won the Creative Arts prize in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and snagged a $100,000 grant from Gordon was invited to speak about the future of arts and technology at MIT President Rafael Reif’s inauguration. Then the women raised a million dollars from angel investors and moved to San Francisco to build their team and their product.

At first the biggest challenge, Gordon says, was image security. The art is all digitally watermarked with proprietary technology, and the high-res images are available only via a protected cloud. For the oiled maple frame, the co-founders hired industrial designers who worked on Beats by Dre headphones; artists are chosen by a New York gallery curator. In November, the website Supercompressor named the Depict frame one of the best designs in the world, and at December’s Art Basel show in Miami Beach digital artist Rashaad Newsome used the frame as a centerpiece to exhibit his new work. Unlike others in the digital art market, Gordon says, Depict is the only company offering an app to find art; software for screens that people already have; select artists who sell their work; and a unique way to display it.

That makes for an ambitious two-pronged strategy of selling a device and operating a platform. But that’s the way tech is going, Gordon says. “Jawbone [the wearable device company] has hardware and embedded software, as does Nest [the connected home pioneer],” Gordon points out. “More hardware companies are going to have a content platform with a usable interface that’s the result of building software.”

Preorders of the Depict frame will ship this summer. Gordon says the company will expand the frame product line to different sizes and aesthetics and engage in partnerships with museums and even a comic book. The marketplace, which currently offers limited editions of digitally watermarked works by hand-selected artists, will eventually allow customers to buy from and sell to each other. “We’ve done a lot of exciting work and it’s wonderful to see it start coming to fruition,” Gordon says. “2015 will be a big and exciting year for Depict.”

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