John Hanke, MBA 96, the mastermind behind Pokémon Go and Google Earth, Maps, and Street View, has forever altered the way we interact with the worldBy Nancy Davis Kho
For much of the world, Pokémon Go defined the summer of 2016. Players of all ages raced around neighborhoods “catching” Pokémon characters with their mobile devices in the augmented- reality (AR) video game designed to encourage physical movement and social engagement while enmeshed in story.
Launched last July, the game, created by Niantic Labs, was downloaded 650 million times by February 2017, and its players have walked more than five billion miles in pursuit of Charmanders, Squirtles, and Bulbasaurs.
Pokémon Go surprised the gaming industry, says Niantic’s founder and CEO John Hanke, MBA 96. “Virtual reality used to be the dominant discussion,” he says. “Pokémon Go opened people’s eyes to what AR can do. It has the potential to connect people out in the real world.”
Indeed, the game almost instantly became a cultural phenomenon. It’s just the latest success for Hanke, who also led the development of Google Earth, Maps, and Street View. For successfully guiding teams at the forefront of technology’s most dominant trends—mobile, maps, social media, and gaming—Hanke is receiving the 2017 Leading Through Innovation Award from Berkeley-Haas in November. The accolade honors alumni whose ingenuity redefines business.
For Hanke, Pokémon Go embodies three things that have fascinated him since childhood: geography, gaming, and storytelling. “I was a bored kid growing up in a small West Texas town, and I always had an idea that I wanted to see the wider world,” Hanke says.
That interest was stoked when a neighbor gave Hanke and his sister a stack of old National Geographics. “We spent hours pulling out maps and looking at the photos,” Hanke recalls. “Those magazines may have planted the seeds of my interest in discovery, travel, and exploration as much as anything else.”
By middle school, Hanke was learning basic programming from his math teacher and reading science fiction at the encouragement of a local librarian. He was drawn to the idea of creating imaginary worlds on the computer in the context of a fictional game, a passion that was reignited at Berkeley-Haas.
Hanke enrolled at Haas after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin and working in the foreign service in Myanmar for a few years. Soon after beginning his MBA, Hanke joined a startup that took root at the school—Archetype Interactive, a video game design company founded by Steve Sellers, MBA 96. Hanke and Sellers created Meridian 59, the first 3-D massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
“I saw an opportunity to use technology to help people get out into the real world. People were hungry for that.”
—John Hanke, MBA 96
After the pair sold Archetype Interactive on graduation day in 1996, Hanke continued to work on online games for a time, then returned to his youthful map fascination, co-founding geospatial data visualization firm Keyhole in 2001. “Keyhole was a radical departure from online maps that had come before,” says Hanke. Media companies used its sophisticated 3-D technology to provide context for their on-air reporting during the 2003 Iraq invasion. Google took note and acquired Keyhole in 2004 for $35 million.
As vice president of product management for Google’s Geo division, Hanke led the evolution of Keyhole into products like Google Earth, Maps, and Street View, giving people everywhere easy access to virtual models of the planet. By 2010, Hanke sat at the helm of a 2,000-person division.
But the lure to explore struck again and manifested when Hanke founded a skunkworks gaming division within Google that year called Niantic Labs.
With Niantic, says Hanke, “I saw an opportunity to use technology to help people get out into the real world. People were hungry for that.” His interest in melding technology with social interactions came, in part, from being a father. “My son was an eighth grader at that point and getting deep into games, and I was torn,” he says. “I’d gotten so much out of computers as a kid, but as a parent I wanted him to develop in other ways.”
Niantic raised its flag in the gaming industry in 2012 with Ingress, an augmented-reality, location-based game that uses a science fiction narrative structure and encourages group engagement. “It’s not sitting at home typing at each other on Facebook,” says Hanke of Ingress’ collaborative gameplay. The audience reaction to Ingress, which had seven million players by 2015, was intense. “People formed groups and clubs and used Ingress as a springboard,” says Hanke. Fans have told him that by playing the game, they expanded their social connections and traveled to places they’d never before been.
In 2015 Hanke came to a career junction where a map might have come in handy: whether to continue with Niantic Labs under the Google umbrella, benefitting from the parent company’s vast resources and infrastructure, or to spin the company off, gaining more flexibility and a return to Hanke’s entrepreneurial roots.
The many factors that went into Hanke’s ultimate decision to take Niantic independent that year, with sizable outside investments from Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and Google, were later documented in a case study by one of Hanke’s former professors, Jerome Engel, founder of Haas’ Lester Center for Entrepreneurship (now part of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program). When Engel presented the Niantic case study in a Berkeley Executive Education program called “The Innovation Organization,” Hanke was sitting quietly in the back of the classroom to listen in on the discussion among students who were unaware of his role with the company.
When it came time for students to vote on whether Niantic should stay or go, Hanke recalls, “Virtually every one of the students said spin out. That surprised me.” Given the continued worldwide success of Pokémon Go, the first product release from an independent Niantic Labs, it seems both Hanke and Engel’s students—who were surprised and delighted when Hanke’s identity was revealed—made the right billion-dollar bet.
By any measure, Hanke’s accomplishments have earned him the right to preen, but the only attitude on display is the humility that he asserts is an important characteristic for a Berkeley Leader. Hanke says, “If I think about the quality of the people who study at Haas, if I think about my own classmates while I was there, I’m very happy to be recognized with this award. It’s a great honor.”
Of an impactful moment that shaped Hanke’s worldview, he recalls an ethics lecture at Haas, in which the speaker reminded his audience that it’s possible to do well and do good simultaneously. “The idea of a company pursuing both social and business goals is something we’re trying to do with Niantic,” he says. It’s a message he imparts as a Haas Executive Fellow, returning to campus regularly to speak to and inspire students to follow where ingenuity leads them.
After all, Hanke says, it was a particularly meaningful Haas guest speaker, Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark, who gave him the courage to go out and pursue his own goals. “After Clark spoke,” Hanke says, “eight or nine of us had dinner with him, and it was the most amazing thing, to connect what you imagine out there in the world and make it real and tractable.” Or, in Hanke’s case, to augment what’s real and create a global phenomenon in the process.