Wireless Memory Card Maker Eye-Fi Raises $20M Series D Led By NTT DOCOMO

Eye-Fi, the maker of those nifty, wireless memory cards that automatically sync digital camera photos to your devices, as well as to cloud services like Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and YouTube, is today announcing it has raised $20 million in Series D funding. The round was led by NTT DOCOMO, the largest mobile operator in Japan, something which hints at the company’s plans towards further international expansion through carrier relationships.

Also participating in the new round were existing investors Shasta Ventures, Opus Capital and TransLink Capital. In addition, Eye-Fi announced an expansion to its executive team, which sees former Skype and eBay exec Michele Don Durbin joining as Eye-Fi’s VP of Marketing. Don Durbin will be involved in helping the company with its planned international growth, the company says, both geographically and across product categories.

With the new partnership between NTT DOCOMO and Eye-Fi, the operator’s 59 million subscribers will be able to automatically upload photos from their camera to mobile phones, as well as sync them between other devices, including digital photo frames. The difference now with the carrier-enabled activation is that a computer would never have to be involved in the process.

The company tells us that traditionally, Eye-Fi’s memory cards have to be set up using a computer before the automatic syncing takes place. For NTT DOCOMO customers, it’s about cutting out the middleman. Eye-Fi cards will be able to be activated and configured directly from customers’ phones, after which Eye-Fi’s apps will begin the automatic syncing they’re known for.

While cord-free wireless sync has always been Eye-Fi’s primary value proposition, what’s interesting about this partnership (and associated funding raise) is what it means for the future of the company. Wireless SD cards, while handy, are meant for digital cameras and recorders – an industry that has been heavily impacted by the growth of smartphones. Look at Flip’s shuttering or Kodak’s move into bankruptcy, as example of how much impact smartphones have had on this market. For casual consumers, a smartphone camera is often “good enough. Plus, it’s always on hand.

Eye-Fi has partly acknowledged this shift, with the recent introduction of mobile applications for the iPhone, iPad and Android, which instantly upload photos from Eye-Fi SD cards to mobile devices – devices, which can then, in turn, upload photos to the cloud. But with the carrier partnership in place, there seems to be new potential for Eye-Fi to eventually move beyond its SD card roots, into services for smartphone owners whose mobile phone is their primary photo-taking equipment, as opposed to a digital camera.

The company says that it saw over 300+ million photos and videos uploaded last year alone, following tens of millions of investment into its technology. Imagine how many more photos could be moved if it didn’t just cut computers out of the equation, but standalone digital cameras, too.