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EyeEm, with latest funding, zooms in on its photo marketplace

April 16, 2015, 10:29 PM UTC

EyeEm, an online community — and now marketplace — for photos, said Thursday that it has raised $18 million in new funding.

The four-year-old German-born startup is on a mission to help photographers showcase and make money from their pictures. EyeEm cofounder and CEO Flo Meissner came up with the idea from his own passion for photography.

“In 2009, I moved to New York to fulfill my life dream, which was to become a professional photographer,” he told Fortune. After his equipment was stolen during a train ride, Meissner was left with only his smartphone’s camera. That’s when he started coming up with the idea for EyeEm (EyeEm photographers, of course, use all kinds of equipment, not just phones).

Although it’s not nearly as well-known as the Facebook-owned photo-sharing network Instagram, EyeEm recently said that it now has more than 13 million users across 150 countries (that’s far fewer than Instagram’s 300 million users).

And unlike Instagram, EyeEm found ways to make money fairly early, and at the moment it does it in two ways. The first is through “missions,” which are campaigns marketers launch to find photos they can buy and use. Major brands like Mercedes-Benz, Foursquare, Airbnb, Uber, and LiveStrong have run successful missions, Meissner says.

EyeEm’s other money-making idea is its recently introduced marketplace, Market, a challenger to stock photo sellers like iStockphoto, Getty Images (with which EyeEm is partnered), and Flickr. There, enthusiasts can buy licenses to use the work of others for $20 per image while commercial licenses cost $250 per image. Photographers get half of the money, just as they do with images licensed through “missions.” Although Market is only available in the US at the moment, the company is actively looking into expanding it into other countries in the near future.

Picsart, a mobile app and community for making and sharing photos and images, has also gained attention for generating revenue quickly, both through ads and the sale of premium features to its users. It recently raised $10 million from Sequoia Capital and is raising an additional $15 million according to Fortune sources.

But EyeEm’s biggest ambition is its quest to build a sophisticated image search engine.

“The biggest problem in photography history is actually how to do you find images that interest you,” Meissner said. The real challenge, it turns out, is to analyze and understand images. To do so, last year EyeEm acquired French startup, whose technology helps computers recognize, analyze, and even evaluate an image based on aesthetics.

Pinterest, the San Francisco-based pinboard for online images and products, has also been building its own image search engine. Over the past year, it’s launched several new search capabilities, including Guided Search which provides both direct keyword search results as well as more loosely affiliated results.

But unlike Pinterest, EyeEm isn’t looking to turn images into data it could use to better sell ads. Meissner says he’s keeping firm with his original promise to users not to turn their content into revenue solely for the company.

“I think ads for us is not an option,” he said.

New York-based firm Valar Ventures led the round in EyeEm, with existing investors Earlybird Ventures, Passion Capital, Wellington Partners, Atlantic Labs, and Open Ocean Capital also participating. Meissner co-founded EyeEm with Gen Sadakane, Ramzi Rizk, and Lorenz Aschoff in 2011, and the company previously raised $6 million in funding.