tl;dr Summary: Helium is a project with the potential to revolutionize the telecommunications industry. After another successful funding round, Helium Systems Inc. has rebranded as Nova Labs. The move aims to distinguish their corporate entity from the flourishing community governed network they have created.
Helium aims ‘to transform how the world connects to the internet’. The project, known as ‘The People’s Network,’ was founded in 2013 by Shawn Fanning, Amir Haleem, and Sean Carey. The trio formed Helium Systems Inc, with the initial goal to make it easier to build connected devices for the Internet of Things (IoT). The project has since evolved to focus on the development of a decentralised, peer-to-peer internet network, powered by crypto. The network has seen unprecedented adoption over the last year. Helium Systems Inc. this week confirmed reports of a $200M Series D equity round and announced that they would be rebranding to become known as ‘Nova Labs’.
The Helium network is powered by physical ‘hotspot’ devices, known as ‘miners’. These devices transmit wireless signals to create a decentralised network. The primary network provided was longfi, which provided low-frequency coverage for IoT devices such as Lime scooters. Since April 2021 there has been a move to provide more traditional ‘internet’ coverage, with devices transmitting high frequency signals, including 5G. Although the first hotspots were created and sold by Helium Systems Inc, the technology is open-source, and thus multiple third-party operators now produce Helium devices. People are incentivised to provide network coverage as the devices earn rewards in the network’s native cryptocurrency, $HNT.
Helium devices earn $HNT via connection to the helium blockchain, which runs a novel ‘Proof-of-Coverage’ consensus mechanism. To demonstrate ‘proof-of-coverage,’ a hotspot is challenged to relay information to another randomly selected hotspot within reach on the network, and this process is ‘witnessed’ by a third hotspot. All three devices thus prove that they are providing reliable network signals, and are rewarded with $HNT tokens. Location is paramount for earning potential, with the hotspot having to be remote enough not to be saturated in competition, but not too remote such that it can’t connect to any other devices. In this way, the network is incentivised to continue expanding.
The Helium network has seen enormous growth over the past year. Given increasing reports of internet censorship and shutdowns across the globe, it is no surprise that individuals are flocking to a network that cannot be shut down at the drop of a hat. Governments too have seen the potential of the project. The city of San Jose, California launched an initiative to install Helium devices across the city, in an attempt to provide internet coverage for some of the 95,000 that were estimated to lack internet access across the city. At the time of writing, there are over 700,000 hotspots online, providing wireless network coverage in over 50,000 cities worldwide.
It is this success that has prompted the recent restructuring. As part of the drive for decentralisation, the Decentralised Wireless Alliance (DWA) was set up in 2020 as a community-run organisation to coordinate Helium development. The DWA is to rename as the Helium Foundation, and will take on all brand assets and intellectual property of Nova Labs (formerly Helium Systems Inc.), including the helium trademark. Nova labs will continue as key contributors to the network, with a focus on blockchain development, but the aim of the move is to ‘provide a clearer distinction between our corporate entity and the open-sourced Helium Network that is owned and operated by the people’.
Whilst announcing the restructure, the team also confirmed reports of a $200M Series D equity round from February. This puts Nova Labs at a $1.2 billion valuation. The round was led by Tiger Global and Andreessen Horowitz, and included big name investors such as GV (formerly Google Ventures) and telecommunications giant Liberty Global. With ground-level support and heavy industry backing for a venture with the potential to transform a global industry, it is no surprise that the Helium Foundation is confident that the project is ‘just getting warmed up.’