Two decades ago, Tlee Cooper was unemployed and struggled to fit in anywhere.
Her only respite: playing the life-simulation game called the Sims, which her friend Riquel gifted her before Riquel left Los Angeles to move to Atlanta. Little did Cooper know this game had only planted the seeds.
Flash forward to 2022: Cooper has launched ZROverse, a metaverse company that creates virtual worlds where real-world businesses can operate. Launched in 2019 and billing itself as Metaverse-as-a-Service (MaaS), the company aims to help governments, businesses and residents re-imagine their cities virtually and help establish their digital economies.
“When I started thinking about all of the different use cases, for how it could help other people, it took on a new meaning for the project,” Cooper said. “People would be able to start from zero and not feel intimidated about wanting to come to be a part of this new era of the internet.”
ZROverse is now based in both Durham and Baltimore, but Cooper is in the process of fully moving herself and the company to the Bull City.
ZROverse is currently participating in the Innovate Durham program, giving the startup its first government partnership. Over a 16-week period, participants work with the City of Durham to innovate new ideas and technologies. Other companies in the program include Resolved Analytics, Lavni, SmartBridge, and Durham Success Summit.
Unlike most virtual worlds, such as Roblox and Sandbox, ZROverse is photorealistic rather than cartoonish. It’s a way to protect the serious nature of businesses and professionals.
“We want to be the LinkedIn of the Metaverse,” said Cooper.
Using the platform, the user can interact in three primary ways, all without using a VR headset. First, users can explore and shop within the “city,” which Cooper refers to as the game side. Second, businesses can set up virtual stores, as well as upload and manage their inventory in real time.
This brings us to a feature that sets ZROverse apart from its competitors: the developer side. Users can enroll in educational courses and offer those learned skills as a service within its metaverse ecosystem.
Cooper said to think of it as Coursera mixed with Fiverr, the freelance services platform.
“People who’ve wanted to get into tech, or learn a specific skill, instead of having to enroll in a traditional community college or get accepted into a four-year, they have these platforms now that make it easily accessible,” she said.
While the ride to where the company is today was no easy task, Cooper kept pushing the platform forward. When she found that it wasn’t cost-efficient to recruit individual businesses to set up virtual stores one-by-one, she started pursuing local government partners, who have “a whole army of businesses to pull from.”
“If I just get one to believe in what I’m doing, I can build out cities almost, and get more accomplished with each one of those products if it’s packaged like that,” she said.
Currently, the ZROverse team is made up of 11 employees, who are mainly contractors located across the country and overseas. Cooper said she is looking to eventually fully relocate their headquarters from Baltimore to Durham.
Innovate Durham partnership
With the Innovate Durham partnership, the company is now testing the MaaS three-sided platform by creating a digital Durham. Cooper said this includes the developer side, which means creating jobs and virtual stores with photorealistic assets. There will be an open call for sponsors, businesses and artists who want to be a part of the project between Oct. 17-Dec. 17.
The launch of the Digital Durham project is expected to be in February 2023. But, Cooper said the platform itself is developed enough to prepare for a public beta later this year.
ZROverse also participated last week in the Black Founders Exchange, hosted by the American Underground and Google for Startups. It’s a curated program designed to help high-growth, scalable businesses with Black founders raise seed capital.
Other companies in the program included CliniSpan Health, Happied and Barley Inc. [Editor’s Note: RTP-based CliniSpan Health, the only other startup in this year’s Black Founders Exchange with local ties besides ZROverse, was recently named one of GrepBeat’s 2022 Startups To Watch and was also the subject of a March feature story.]
Cooper said the main focus behind any project they do is accessibility. Due to physical, mental and financial limitations, many people are not able to experience things like shopping, traveling, and entertainment. Technologies like ZROverse’s can make it available to those people.
“I think ZROverse is in the position to create a lot of ‘new-collar jobs’ and level the playing field for people who often get left behind to be able to have a chance in the future,” Cooper said. “The digital divide is real. And it’s only getting worse.”
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