Robert Iger spent decades helming a company known for its animated characters. For his next act, the former Walt Disney Co. boss is backing a startup that celebrities and others are using to create avatars for the much-hyped metaverse.
In his first career move since leaving the entertainment company in November, Mr. Iger has taken a board seat with Los Angeles-based Genies Inc. He is also an investor in the business, one of five fledgling tech companies he’s recently backed. Other Genies investors include Mary Meeker’s Bond Capital, Breyer Capital and New Enterprise Associates.
Mr. Iger, 71 years old, met with about two dozen startup executives before making his investments and becoming one of five directors on Genies’ board, he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “I was particularly interested in companies that were using technology for disruptive purposes and, where possible, the intersection between technology and creativity,” he said.
Mr. Iger was chief executive of Disney from 2005 until early 2020, and continued as executive chairman after that until last year.
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Genies was founded in 2017 by Akash Nigam, a 29-year-old entrepreneur. The company, which has raised $100 million in funding and employs more than 100 people, offers tools for making virtual characters, clothing and accessories backed by nonfungible tokens. NFTs are considered an integral part of what many see as the next big wave of tech innovation dubbed Web 3.0 or Web3.
Genies also operates an NFT marketplace where its users can sell their creations for a 5% fee on primary and secondary sales. Last year Genies signed partnerships with Universal Music Group NV and Warner Music Group Corp. , through which it counts artists such as Justin Bieber, Migos, Rihanna and Cardi B as users.
“We believe that avatar ecosystems are going to impact Web3, the same way that mobile apps impacted Web2,” Mr. Nigam said in an interview. “We deliver a variety of different tools, tools that allow users to create different types of avatar species, to create different avatar fashion lines, to be able to create different avatar worlds, and then also avatar interactive experiences.”
Mr. Iger said he was attracted to Genies because he believes the ability for anyone to easily create and sell virtual goods will change the entertainment industry and be a key component of the metaverse, a term used to describe developing virtual worlds where people are expected to work, learn and socialize. The freedom to use existing intellectual property was particularly appealing.
“Imagine, you know, letting someone buy a Mickey Mouse avatar and customizing it in a way that not only would we never allow it before, but it was kind of hard to do in the physical world,” Mr. Iger said.
He also said he is a proponent of Web 3.0, which is considered by some as essential to realizing the metaverse. “I’m being entrepreneurial at this point in my life,” he said.
NFTs are a component of the metaverse and Web 3.0 as they certify ownership of unique virtual goods via blockchain technology. Though relatively new and unproven, the NFT market has grown over the past year, with people buying characters, artwork, videogame assets and more to use or show off in virtual worlds. While prices have been volatile, total NFT sales climbed to more than $17 billion in 2021 from less than $100 million in 2020, according to a new report from industry tracker Nonfungible.com and forecasting firm L’Atelier BNP Paribas.
Celebrities including Paris Hilton and Gwyneth Paltrow have been drawn to the space, helping to put a pricey collection of NFTs depicting apes called Bored Ape Yacht Club into the spotlight. Genies, through its music-industry partnerships, says it has an edge in the character, or avatar, corner of the market. Still, it remains to be seen as to how much value the NFTs people are buying today will have down the road and what kind of revenue operators of NFT marketplaces can expect.
At Walt Disney, Mr. Iger led negotiations to acquire Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm and Pixar, and then successfully integrated those brands alongside well-known legacy characters like Mickey Mouse.
Mr. Iger helped make Disney more tech-centric by overseeing the launch of the company’s popular streaming service Disney+. For his post-Disney life, he likened his decision to join Genies’ board to taking chances on a pitch for a new movie.
“A movie director comes in with a great idea and you take a leap of faith,” he said.
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Appeared in the March 15, 2022, print edition as 'Ex-Disney Boss Iger Heads for Metaverse.'