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Economic Data Startup Premise Raises $50 Million, Adds Tesla, Solar City Board Member

A Google-y startup with a novel approach to big data.

Steven Sinofsky

From Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C., to Brussels, there’s a mad dash to absorb as much data about the world as possible. When it comes to the developing world, that data is often very hard to come by.

Premise, a startup based in San Francisco, has a novel solution: It pays people in emerging markets for access to their phone GPS and cameras, then sucks up that data. The information Premise patches together — on the prices of food and electricity, based on images, or business conditions, based on GPS data — is then sold to government and financial institutions, such as the World Bank. Premise claims its method gives a better picture of economic indicators than current models.

And now Premise has another $50 million. The company is raising that much in a round led by Valor Equity Partners, whose CEO, Antonio Gracias, will join Premise’s board. Gracias is also on the board of two Elon Musk companies, Tesla and Solar City.

On paper, those two companies look worlds apart from Premise. But there’s a connection, claimed Premise CEO David Soloff. He sees his company as also working along a supply chain, only one of disparate data across the world previously uncollected.

“On one level, it’s a really significant logistics problem,” Soloff said. “It’s really compressing time and space.”

Premise collects data from over 30 countries, relying on about 25,000 Android owners — it calls them “contributors” — who are paid between $100 and $120 a month. Premise then collates that data with advanced software.

Think of its effort as a ground-level version of what several satellite firms — Planet Labs and Orbital Insights, among others — are doing: Shooting economic data from above, then selling it. (The two models are complementary, said Soloff.) Google is potentially moving in this direction with Skybox, the satellite company it acquired for $500 million last year.

Google is also an investor in Premise, through its venture arm. And Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, is an adviser. In July, the startup recruited former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to its board. This month, it added Joanna Lee Shevelenko, a former business development lead for Facebook, as its VP of growth.

Update: An earlier version of this article said Premise pays out $40 to $50 to contributors, not $100 to $120. The company had misspoken.

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