Celly Co-founder Russell Okamoto on Shrinking Networks, Raising $1.4 Million

By Devon Glenn 

“Why is there a need for another social network?” asked Celly co-founder Russell Okamoto. It’s a rhetorical question. He and co-founder Greg Passmore have just closed a $1.4 million funding round on Celly, a social platform they built in 2011.

People are always building new social networks, said Okamoto: students and teachers in a classroom, activist groups like Occupy Wall Street, or sports fans sitting in the same stadium for a game. These “emergent networks,” as he calls them, are often disbanded as quickly as they were formed. But in the moment, members of these groups communicate with one another through email, through their social networks, or on their phones.

Instead of one large network, Celly aims to build millions of smaller networks, or “cells,” that are interconnected. With one click, group administrators can invite anyone with web access or SMS capability to join the group to track topics, receive alerts, or take polls without having to commit to a lifetime of updates.

Okomoto said they created the prototype for Celly at his daughter’s school, where the teachers could pass on details about homework assignments and tests to the students and parents without revealing their personal phone numbers.

These cells become “organizational building blocks” that can connect with each other, such as teams, clubs, bands, and choirs that can collaborate on a festival and then separate for the rest of the year.  Or a cell for a city government can connect to one for the local fire department to prepare for emergencies.

The tool is already “being used in real-life scenarios where existing networks don’t work,” said Okamoto. During Hurricane Sandy, Celly organized close to 3,000 volunteers from the Rockaways, Staten Island, and other affected areas on one network to assist people who needed transport.

“The whole social landscape is undergoing a shift,” Okamoto said. “Decentralization” from a site like Facebook, where decades worth of social connections co-exist on one page, to ones that overlap only when it makes sense, he said, is the way he sees it playing out.

With the support of the Oregon Angel Fund (OAF) and other investors including Upstart Labs and Portland Seed Fund, Celly is looking to expand its team in Portland, OR. The company hopes to scale the platform and redesign the interface for multiple devices to “narrow the digital divide,” as Okamoto put it, and arm the public with useful tools that can impact the most people in the shortest amount of time.