October 1, 2022

Member Spotlight: Dolfin Ventures

Karen Snyder  /  Beaufort Lifestyle

It's been just over a year, but when Jason Loia, co-founder and CEO of Dolfin Ventures and a pioneer in the gaming industry made Beaufort his home, he brought with him his 20-year high-tech career and a promising digital future to town. Stanford and Harvard University educated, this proud U.S. Coast Guard veteran is dedicated to creating "a beehive" of game and app startups right here in Beaufort. Long-term, Loia envisions a lively game startup locally, where young college graduates can have thriving career paths in their community.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, CA, Loia is using his Silicon Valley knowledge, having launched one of the first mobile game studios in the U.S. and now is working alongside the Beaufort Digital Corridor (BDC) and the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) to help aspiring founders in the gaming industry. The reach for those in this field is a global one, with an estimated 3 billion gamers around the world.

Referred to as a "digital accelerator and incubator," Dolfin Ventures seeks to assist those who dream of creating web and mobile games and apps from concept to creation and quite possibly to a full startup company. For Loia, startup culture is in his DNA, having spent years working alongside some of the legends in the mobile game industry, including names like Trip Hawkins (founder of Electronic Arts) and Ilkka Paananen (co-founder of Supercell). Among his credits is serving as COO in several venture-backed game companies, president of AnchorFree and CEO of CyberGhost, two leading cybersecurity VPN companies.

Having spent two whirlwind decades in various Silicon Valley startups, Loia was in "pre-retirement" mode when he started contemplating a change of scenery. Gravitating toward the coastal community lifestyle in the South, he found the "hidden gem of Beaufort" and relocated to the Lowcountry. After arriving in Beaufort, Loia's drive to launch yet another startup was sparked again by running into his now business partner, Beaufort-native Andrew Branning. Branning, a serial entrepreneur with his own digital marketing startup, proposed joining forces to launch Beaufort's first-ever game incubator. Branning and Loia soon discovered the Beaufort Digital Corridor (BDC) while looking for office space, and after confirming with Jessie O'Brien, the Executive Director of the BDC, that there indeed seemed to be a healthy local interest in high-tech and gaming, Dolfin Ventures was officially launched at the BDC in October 2021.Jason with Business Partner Andrew Branning and USCB Media Art Students
photo by 1212DESIGN

Loia is passionate about helping founders (creators of games and apps) succeed. "We teach entrepreneurs with great ideas how to ship a product or app from A to Z. This includes a gambit of best practices from forming their product strategy, business model, growth strategy, and even testing their MVP (minimum viable product) in the market." Loia continues, "If their beta metrics are healthy, we may even fund the startup or help them find funding." According to Loia, Dolfin Ventures promises to stay with the startup throughout its journey, so that the entrepreneur always feels secure in having guidance as they evolve through their various stages of growth.

What's exciting about bringing the Silicon Valley to Beaufort, says Loia, is his resolve that the next great gaming or app idea may just be residing in our small town. The key for Dolfin Ventures is "to find that idea in a person's head and then find out if that person really wants to sacrifice everything to make the idea happen.

"We're looking for that 20-year-old who's probably sitting in class at USCB right now and not listening to the professor," he chuckles, "because they can't stop thinking about their game idea, and they know they will get it done with or without our help."

Based on his past experience, Loia understands that for his company to be successful, he needs to find entrepreneurs with the "resolve and the grit" to actually want to put it out there to market. However, sitting back and waiting for this discovery of talent isn't part of Loia's plan. Instead, he's taking a proactive approach to "growing a funnel" right here in Beaufort.

Collaborating with USCB, Dolfin Ventures is working alongside two important faculty members, including Jim Sidletsky, MFA, an assistant professor in the University's Visual Art and Design Department, and Brian Canada, PhD, an associate professor of computational science in the Department of Computer Science and Mathematics. Both are educating students in two important aspects of interactive game development and design. Building interactive 3-D worlds, or metaverses, takes both visual and graphic arts knowledge coupled with the computer sciences, including engineering, programming, and coding.

"For the last six or seven months, we've been working with local community leaders, like BDC and USCB, in an effort to build interest in mobile game development in the community. Through Jim, we set up an internship program of seven media art students last fall, and we created a game studio environment where they put their talents to the test," explains Loia.

"They did an absolutely amazing job. They did a wide variety of tasks for realworld game projects, from creating level designs, to character designs, to environmentals (3D objects such as cars, buildings, islands), to storylines and UX (user experience). They just did an incredible job." Through the internship program, Loia explains that not only did the game project benefit from their creativity and 3D skills, but they were also exposed to real-life game development experience as it would occur in a game studio.

In fact, this past summer, Dolfin Ventures hired back a few of its interns to work as professional artists, building out things that the game-in-progress required. "We have several students we're working with, and it's been a real fulfilling thing to see them go from interns to working for pay. We even have one student that went on to specialize in web and app UX (user experience) design, and she is literally wireframing two products that will launch this year."

In addition to internships, Loia says he collaborated with both USCB professors to form a "game studio class," where computer science students and media art students work together in class to build a game. "They come up with an idea, build on that idea, perfect it, and then come up with a game design document," explains Loia. "Together, the computer science and visual arts students deliver the game during that particular semester. They get to experience some of the challenges that go along with development and the urgency of how to collaborate and successfully put together ideas that will make the magic happen on the screen. The multidisciplinary collaboration experience is priceless in software development, and I'm excited to see this program grow year after year."

photo by 1212DESIGN

Loia didn't waste any time putting feelers out in the community for budding entrepreneurs. He teamed up with the Beaufort Digital Corridor to put together a custom mobile game design program and selected six finalists to undergo the program. The six-week program takes the entrepreneur through a step-by-step process from formalizing a game concept, to creating concept art, to designing game mechanics, and to designing the first few levels. The first-ever cohort to go through the program has just finished up, and they will be presenting their Game Concepts at Demo Day on October 20th at the BDC at 5:00 p.m. Loia adds, "Everyone is welcome to attend. I think many will be surprised at the ideas that are coming out of our community."

As far as the "venture" arm of his business, says Loia, it is based on searching for and planting a dozen seed ideas every year. "Every year, from these early concepts will emerge one or two that really catches our eye in terms of the potential of the founder and their idea. We will take these ideas under our wing and trial launch an MVP (essentially a prototype) of their app to market. If it shows potential, we will continue to support the entrepreneur and grow it to the next level," he explains, mentioning a recent young founder who is benefiting from their guidance.

"We're looking for founders who are obsessed. We grilled this one young entrepreneur, Shane, on 100 different questions, and they had all their answers written in a notebook. It wasn't that they had all the right answers, but they clearly had been thinking through every detail of their idea for literally years: vetting it, perfecting it, getting ready for the day when they took the step to start to build it. He was hyper passionate about building his app and all he really needed was just a little mentoring on how apps are launched, grown, and optimized. Essentially, we give them the tools to get their apps into orbit. His app, Gruvv, by the way, is a fascinating social music sharing app and will be launching later this year."

And sometimes, into orbit it goes! Loia says that monetizing an app has the potential for building long-term, residual income for the founder each time an app is downloaded. Likewise, the high-demand world of NFT gaming (non-fungible tokens) or digital assets that represent in-game content, unlocks significant earnings potential for those in the industry.

"There is a growing demand in the industry for building NFT-based games, and we are creating teams in our local community to show them not only how to build them, but also how to leverage these new business models into their existing businesses.

"We're especially excited about opening up new digital economies right here for our community to participate in. For example, for our digital artists who are making characters in a game for an hourly wage today, the big upside is that someday in the not-so-distant future they might get a check for $10,000 because that NFT character sold for $100,000. Essentially, the NFT smart contract allows them to earn a 10% residual on every transaction on the character they created for the rest of their life! We're excited to bring those kinds of business models to gaming but specifically to Beaufort."

For being a recent transplant, Loia says he already feels like he's part of the fabric of the community. "Everyone has been so welcoming and neighborly," Loia adds. "It's such a beautiful, coastal gem of a community. I can't really compare it to anything else. I just love it here."

With their innovative and collaborative nature, it's certain that Loia, his partner Andrew Branning, and Dolfin Ventures will be part of Beaufort's future history. "We want to grow something very special, build career opportunities here," says Loia, who adds that he hopes to one day see a digital training center in Beaufort. "Our goal is to build a thriving app and game development community right here in Beaufort."