Zebra Labs raises $5M to help Chinese celebrities enter the metaverse • TechCrunch


In June, Chinese pop punk singer Wowkie Zhang released a music video where he faces a virtual character in a colorful, animated world reminiscent of the Pixar movies. The avatar, Gen-Z-style silver hair, big yellow and black sweats, and baggy pants set hip-hop moves to Zhang’s catchy, light-hearted tone.

The virtual character is not a one-time creation; Instead, Zebra Labs, which produced the video, is turning it into a piece of reusable intellectual property that can be purchased as NFT in the marketplace and appear in other virtual events such as video games. The startup is waiting for a bull market to return to launch the NFT project, Scarlett Lee, founder and CEO of Zebra Labs, told TechCrunch.

Lee says the goal with Zebra Labs is to “create intellectual property fully integrated with content” and “play virtual idols like celebrities.” Some of the avatars he creates are based on real-life stars, while others are original characters. To generate revenue, Zebra Labs grows an audience for its idols through short films, photos and social posts, thus monetizing the fan base. It also licenses its virtual idols to partners for a fee.

Here’s Zebra Labs trying to build a fan base for Zookie, who makes a cameo in Wowkie Zhang’s music video, by directing Douyin (Chinese version of TikTok) clips of the character:

NFT, which is already widely used in documenting intellectual property rights, could be used to better engage fans, believes Li, who previously helped organize some of China’s biggest music festivals. “When you are 30 years old, you lose interest in exploring music, so a virtual environment can stimulate visualization [of music] repeatedly.”

NFT also gives budding musicians a more direct avenue for income. In China, music distribution is in the grip of music streaming giants owned by Tencent and NetEase. These platforms tend to allocate user traffic to musicians who already have a lot of fans, “so to live well as a musician, you need to have a million followers,” Lee says. “NFTs can change that.”

As a veteran of music festivals, Lee is excited about the potential for online concerts. She compares Ariana Grande’s performance fortnite party, where the singer descends on a colorful island in her virtual look with a shimmering silver dress and a glowing white ponytail. Lee says Zebra Labs is in talks with several game companies to launch virtual concerts by Chinese artists within a Minecraft-like game and metaverse platform by 2023.

Zebra Labs recently raised $5 million to advance its metaverse insight. Funding came from Chinese gaming company NetDragon and Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo. According to Li, preparing a Japanese investor can help the startup learn from the country’s long history of managing intellectual property, which is exemplified by the success of virtual idols like Hatsune Miku. The company is also backed by SOSV, a VC firm known for its network of accelerators.

After collaborating with Wowkie Zhang’s music video, which has racked up nearly 40 million clicks across a range of online channels, Zebra Labs has five other artists in the pipeline. It also plans to release a digital twin for Zhang by the first quarter of 2023.

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