Meet the Vermont startup that could be the Disney of the Metaverse

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Paul Budnitz, founder of Superplastic and the mind behind metaverse related projects

The future cultural center of the Metaverse could be 3,000 miles away from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, in a centuries-old brick and lumber warehouse in Burlington, Vermont. On the shores of Lake Champlain, Superplastic founder Paul Budnitz and a team of designers have spent the last five years creating a roster of digital characters and complex stories built to appeal to millions of fans – and potentially billions of dollars – in entertainment, music, and entertainment. , fashion , NFTs and cryptocurrencies in the fledgling world of Web3.

Walt Disney took advantage of early cinema to launch his entertainment force. Marvel did the same trick with the comics. Budnitz, a 54-year-old serial entrepreneur, has built a content studio of wacky multimedia characters designed to thrive in the next metaverse. The noir-themed world of Superplastic feels more like The Matrix than Wonderland. Its colorful inhabitants have gained millions of fans on social media. They also made R$102 million (US$20 million) from selling tens of thousands of NFTs with Christies and others. They party with Paris Hilton, hang out in Fortnite, collaborate on physical collectibles with rapper-singer J. Balvin, and even get paid as Gucci models.

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“Our company is a universe of characters that is constantly growing,” says Budnitz. “As they become popular, they can live in any digital market. I’m willing to do anything in any market where I can understand and care about the audience and do something that’s amazing.”

Inspired by newspaper comics from the early 1900s, Superplastic debuted its first characters in 2020, even before NFTs became part of the pandemic zeitgeist. But unlike comics, the metaverse nature of their origins allows each to travel back and forth between various places, both online and offline, through digital content and physical collectibles. Janky, a feline character, enjoys pop culture, music and tennis. Guggimon, a rabbit known for having the most conceited personality, enjoys horror and fashion movies, but he also publishes content about controlled substances and downward spirals. Later came Dayzee, a rapper who knows everything about commerce and technology.

“Our material is very contemporary,” says Budnitz. “Characters evolve. And I’m also too nervous a person to sit still for too long.”

Investors in technology, entertainment, commerce and fashion are betting on the uniqueness of Superplastic. Since its 2018 round, the company has raised BRL 236 million ($46 million) from a mix of sponsors that includes VC heavyweights (Google Ventures and Index Ventures) and showbiz angels (Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, The Chainsmokers and Jared Leto).

Now, Budnitz tells Forbes that Superplastic has received another R$20 million (US$4 million) in strategic investments from Amazon, Sony Japan, Animoca and Kering – the parent company of Gucci and Balenciaga. The new sponsors bring money, prestige and critical access to global media and commerce channels.

The deal with Amazon will help develop longer-form shows and comics. Sony will be the key to distributing music and movies in Asia. Animoca is already collaborating with Superplastic on NFTs within Rev Racing and The Sandbox. Kering – which has previously collaborated with Superplastic on NFTs and handcrafted porcelain character sculptures via Gucci – is exploring new types of digital and physical products.

Superplastic is just one of several startups Kering has supported in the past year to explore disruptive business models without overexposing luxury brands like Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Other recent investments include second-hand fashion platform Vestiaire Collective, British luxury handbag subscription platform Cocoon.Club and streaming shopping platform NTWRK. Gregory Boutté, Kering’s chief customer and chief digital officer, says early experiments have shown that there is already a “huge appetite” for NFTs and that their unique and creative nature aligns with the characteristics of luxury goods.

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“We see this trend coming and potentially having multiple implications for our industry,” says Boutté. “We’re not sure exactly how, so we want to locate ourselves in the house.”

A serial entrepreneur, Budnitz founded the toy and entertainment company KidRobot in 2002 before selling it in 2013. In 2014, he co-founded Ello – the ad-free social networking platform – and a decade ago started Budnitz Bicycles, a of bicycles in Burlington that closed during the pandemic.

Next to his desk is a poster on one wall that reads “Death to Nostalgia,” a rallying cry he’s carried with him since his KidRobot days. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t inspired by the past. Characters of his were inspired by comic book characters from the past, such as Krazy Kat and Ignatz – which was published as a newspaper strip from 1913 to 1944. He also likes the Belgian comic book duo Asterix and Tintin.

In a way, Superplastic is a second act for Budnitz. Under his leadership for over a decade, KidRobot has done business with a wide range of shows and brands. He made stickers for The Simpsons, Iron Man, South Park and Family Guy. They also collaborate with brands as varied as Volkswagen and Louis Vuitton, along with shoes for Nike and snowboards for Burton. A dozen Budnitz characters are still on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The KidRobot experiences also taught him a fundamental lesson that is now an anchor for Superplastic: never give away intellectual property. He remembers creating new KidRobot characters that were chosen for future shows that were never made and shelved by some studio or another. Instead, he says he still gets royalty checks for a movie that was never made 12 years ago.

“If you look at how animated media is traditionally created,” he says. “An artist often has a great idea, ends up selling it to some big studio, and then the studio makes all the money, controls it, and usually ruins it.”

Budnitz is also inspired by Walt Disney himself from the 1950s, when Mickey’s creator controlled all of his intellectual property. This control allowed Disney to “do its kind of weirdness and create a truly transformed vision of a new world” in movies, TV shows, physical products and theme parks.

Digital celebrities and virtual characters have become increasingly popular. In March, former Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that he is investing in and joining the board of Genies — a startup with a valuation of R$5.13 billion (US$1 billion) that allows people to create their own 3D avatars. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s top talent agencies are signing on to represent a series of digital characters born from popular NFTs like Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), CryptoPunks and Meebits – each collection with its own network of brands, fans, content and business.

Read more: “Don’t create a simple avatar, put Jordan to sell sneakers”, says Olivia Merquior

“This space – let’s look back at how we looked at social media,” says Sarah Early, marketing executive at UTA. “Everyone will need to play a role in this and going in without a strategy is not enough.”

With Superplastic, the plan has always been about the characters – and all the movies, music, stories and sponsors that go with them. But the growing interest in digital collectibles is the perfect time for Budnitz, who has a long history of creating and selling limited-edition physical items.

Bryan Rosenblatt, a partner at San Francisco-based venture capital firm Craft Ventures, invested in 2019. When Superplastic announced its BRL 102 million ($20 million) Series A round last fall, Rosenblatt told Forbes, Budnitz is a “creative genius” with a track record of “building those cult brand following and having a good eye for art, entertainment and business.”

“It was a totally different vibe than any tech company I’ve ever invested in or worked for,” said Moshe Lifschitz, managing partner at Shrug Capital, which also invested in Superplastic’s Series A round. “There was something about the way Paul was approaching building a company and turning it around that was exciting.”

Real-world ambitions also help set Superplastic apart. A new vinyl art toy collaboration with BAYC recently debuted. In June, it plans to open a store in New York City that will sell physical merchandise and have a secret room for NFT owners. She is also working with one partner on opening a sushi restaurant and with another on an animated “comedy-hip-hop-horror” movie starring Janky and Guggimon.

The big question will be whether Janky and Guggimon fans follow them to the box office, listen to their albums, buy their wares and travel deeper and deeper into their metaverse – wherever the rabbit hole may lead.

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About Banner Leon

Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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