A new company named Sigma, founded by alumni of mobile app search engine Quixey, aims to take records and certifications currently trapped in the analog world and bring them online. To do so, the company has raised $4.35 million in seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz and other investors.
The idea originated in late 2014, during a scuba trip in Belize that Sigma cofounder and president Tomer Kagan took with several friends. Each of them was carrying a card proving they had been certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) to go diving.
At the time, a PADI card was your key to diving. If you don’t have it, you couldn’t dive. But relying on a plastic card as proof of certification also introduced challenges to divers, instructors and dive shops.
Divers themselves are asked to keep track of their dives in a ledger, and they rely on shops and instructors to pass proof of dives to PADI for certification. In essence, everyone was relying on information provided from others, and that info wasn’t easy to verify.
The question that nagged Kagan and his friends was why, at this day and age, their certifications weren’t available online. Why were they tied to an analog system of paper ledgers and plastic identification cards? What would it take to put those records online?
Kagan was CEO of Quixey at the time, but the idea just wouldn’t die. In the fall of 2015, he pitched the idea to a small focus group of about 100 people. The following January, Jacob Orrin, who had been VP of partnerships at Quixey, told Kagan he’d like to run with the idea.
Orrin assembled a team, mostly made up of Quixey alums, and set to work building what would become the first version of Sigma. They raised a little bit of money from friends and family and launched a limited alpha in August 2016. Almost immediately, they started receiving interest from skydiving instructors and drop zones.
Skydivers and scuba divers — and the organizations which oversee those sports — face similar challenges in logging dives and tracking certifications. In both cases failure to do so can prove fatal. For instance, in the investigation following a fatal skydiving accident in Lodi, Calif. last year, it was learned that the instructor had not been certified by the United States Parachute Association (USPA).
With that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that there would be a push to adopt a digital certification system. The USPA is the first major outdoor sports regulatory agency to begin issuing Sigma merits and certifications. Skydivers will be able to show the digital merits and qualifications they’ve earned in place of the usual paper license they submit at drop zones today.
Outdoor sports organizations, where participants’ activities and certifications are trapped in receipts and ledgers, seemed an obvious place to start. Any organization can sign up, but Sigma must verify they are official before they can begin offering “merits” through the system.
Sigma’s early focus on outdoor activities is buoyed by the fact that many participants have interests across multiple sports. The hope is that Sigma can create network effects around those categories before moving onto other markets where its merit system can be applied to other markets.
Think about all the jobs that require certifications where there is no universal digital registrar, for instance. Or even how most positions and job titles on resumes are self-reported, and in many cases embellished.
According to Kagan, who formally joined the team as cofounder and president earlier this year, the goal is to create a true meritocracy for all accomplishments or credentials that aren’t online, as well as those that are currently self-reported.
That combination of a winnable go-to market strategy in the short term and audacious long-term vision is partly what attracted Andreessen Horowitz’s Jeff Jordan to lead the firm’s investment in Sigma’s $4.35 million seed round.
Jordan had met Kagan a few times while at Quixey and had been impressed with him and ultimately decided not to invest in Kagan’s former company. But he got the idea behind Sigma right away.
Also a diver, Jordan was familiar with the deficiencies of PADI’s analog card for tracking one’s certification status. He could see how Sigma could be used outside of the realm of somethign like diving or skydiving.
“We don’t see a lot of competition, especially in something as unique as outdoor sports,” Jordan told me. “But the hope is that [Sigma] has broader applicability.”
In addition to Andreessen Horowitz, Sigma’s seed round included investment from WI Harper, Susa Ventures, Azure Capital, Greylock Partners, and Sherpa Capital, as well as angel investors Adam D’Angelo, Adam Foroughi, Auren Hoffman, Paul Ferris, Holly Liu, and Jay Eum.
The Sigma team is currently eleven strong, but it’s looking to add more to scale up. While USPA is an early adopter, the company is hoping to get more outdoor sports organizations on board soon.