Startup brings BB-8 droid toy to life


If it weren’t for some­one will­ing to en­ter­tain a new idea, the new “Star Wars” droid, BB-8, wouldn’t be rolling into liv­ing rooms this hol­i­day sea­son.

The ro­bot — which looks like a me­chan­i­cal head on a spin­ning ball — was the brain­child of film­mak­ers be­hind “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awak­ens,” who were un­aware their pup­petry-an­i­mated char­ac­ter could func­tion in real life.

But in July 2014, the CEO of Lu­cas­film-par­ent Dis­ney, Bob Iger, showed se­cret im­ages of BB-8 to a startup com­pany called Sphero. It was one of the inau­gu­ral class of com­pa­nies Dis­ney brought into a three-month pro­gram meant to nur­ture their en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and maybe gen­er­ate a mon­ey­mak­ing prod­uct.

It was like Force light­ning hit­ting pay dirt.

Sphero’s founders dum­mied up a func­tion­ing pro­to­type that very night, an in­no­va­tion that now sits in a spe­cial locked room in its head­quar­ters in Boul­der, Colorado.

“Imag­ine sit­ting down with Bob Iger and him point­ing to some­thing the whole world wants to know about,” said Sphero CEO Paul Ber­be­rian. “And you get to see some­thing that you’ve been work­ing on. What a mag­i­cal stroke of luck.”

Dis­ney’s “ac­cel­er­a­tor” is the kind of pro­gram be­ing adopted by big com­pa­nies like Mi­crosoft, Bar­clays, Nike and Volk­swa­gen. The idea is to in­vest a small amount in a hand­ful of star­tups, set them up in cheap of­fice space, men­tor them, and launch them on a tra­jec­tory for more fund­ing, prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, and pos­si­bly busi­ness deals.

Dis­ney now plans to give the BB-8 toy made by Sphero a big push in Septem­ber online and in Dis­ney Stores be­fore the movie opens in De­cem­ber. It also took a mi­nor­ity stake in Sphero, which has raised US$81 mil­lion so far.

‘Dream­ing up’

Kevin Mayer, Dis­ney’s chief strat­egy of­fi­cer, says the ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram is less about earn­ing a quick profit and more about dream­ing up in­no­va­tive prod­ucts and in­ject­ing Dis­ney’s up­per man­age­ment with energy and ideas.

“There’s a dif­fer­ent form of ex­cite­ment that you get when you have new peo­ple whose com­pany is on the line and it’s a make-or­break mo­ment for them,” Mayer said. “All the ex­ec­u­tives who came in and men­tored — to a per­son — en­joyed it tremen­dously and came out feel­ing more en­er­gized than they went in.”

The se­cret to suc­cess? Cor­po­ra­tions must “give first” — in other words, be free with their time, ad­vice and con­tacts with­out an ex­pected re­turn, says David Co­hen, the CEO of Tech­Stars, which ad­min­is­ters 18 dif­fer­ent ac­cel­er­a­tors, half of which are linked to ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions.

Seek­ing an im­me­di­ate

ben­e­fit through an ex­clu­sive dis­trib­u­tor re­la­tion­ship or a guar­an­tee of a fu­ture eq­uity stake at a pre­de­ter­mined price can limit good ideas and turn away po­ten­tial ap­pli­cants on the cusp of try­ing to broaden their mar­ket reach.

“That’s what cor­po­rate Amer­ica is still learn­ing,” Co­hen said. “Once (cor­po­ra­tions) are help­ful, in turn, (the star­tups) are prob­a­bly happy to have them in­vest more or buy the com­pany.”

Al­ready funded with roughly US$ 30 mil­lion be­fore join­ing Dis­ney’s ac­cel­er­a­tor, Sphero didn’t need the US$120,000 in­vest­ment that all par­tic­i­pants are awarded. In­stead, it was look­ing to tap into Dis­ney’s sto­ry­telling ex­per­tise to hu­man­ize its toy and gain ac­cess to Dis­ney’s se­nior man­age­ment team.

The re­la­tion­ship helped open the door to Sphero be­com­ing the li­censed maker of the BB-8 toy, get dis­tri­bu­tion agree­ments with ma­jor re­tail­ers and pol­ish its in-store pres­ence. “I can’t ex­press how much they’ve es­sen­tially backed up the truck to help us,” Ber­be­rian said. “It’s hum­bling.”

Ac­cel­er­a­tors are be­com­ing an in­creas­ing source of in­no­va­tion for ma­jor com­pa­nies. Ac­cel­er­a­tor op­er­a­tors like Tech­Stars and Plug and Play Tech Cen­ter pair large com­pa­nies like Home De­pot, John­son and John­son, Citibank and Coca-Cola with star­tups that could ben­e­fit from their con­nec­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence. Mean­while, large com­pa­nies are scour­ing the land­scape for ideas that can help them stay ahead.

Mi­crosoft has run 410 com­pa­nies through its ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram since 2012, and even ac­quired one in 2013 — Met­ric­sHub — which helps IT man­agers keep an eye on their cloud com­put­ing re­sources and save money through au­to­ma­tion. The prod­uct is now given to cus­tomers of the Win­dows Azure cloud com­put­ing ser­vice for free.

But not all ac­cel­er­a­tors work. Media Camp, an ac­cel­er­a­tor run by Time Warner Inc.’s Turner and Warner Bros. units, was shut down last year af­ter three years.

‘Long leap of faith’

Hal Gregersen, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the MIT Lead­er­ship Cen­ter, says em­brac­ing new ideas can be dif­fi­cult for large or­ga­ni­za­tions, es­pe­cially those fo­cused on re­sults, ex­e­cu­tion and im­prov­ing prof­its from ex­ist­ing busi­ness lines.

“New ideas will never be nur­tured for suc­cess by re­sults-driven ex­ec­u­tives who ei­ther don’t know how to in­no­vate them­selves, or truly don’t honor oth­ers who do,” he said. “Be­cause most of these ideas are long leaps of faith.”

This year’s class of 10 star­tups has al­ready taken up res­i­dence at the Dis­ney space in Glendale, across the street from its in­ter­ac­tive and con­sumer prod­ucts di­vi­sion. On a re­cent visit, the star­tups’ CEOs in­tro­duced them­selves and their projects as Mayer walked around the room ask­ing ques­tions.

MakieLab, the maker of cus­tom­made dolls made us­ing 3D print­ers, was look­ing to ex­plore pair­ing its tech­nol­ogy with Dis­ney char­ac­ters, like its Princess line. Mayer thought out loud about team­ing up MakieLab with a grad­u­ate of last year’s class, Tyf­fon, which adapted its zomb­i­fy­ing photo app for Dis­ney char­ac­ters from “Frozen” to “Star Wars.”

“If you could mesh that with a 3D printer and have the whole thing come out in a 3D doll, now we’re talk­ing,” Mayer said.


In this April 16 photo, pro­ducer Kath­leen Kennedy, right, looks down at the BB-8 droid, fea­tured in the up­com­ing film, “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens,” dur­ing the Star Wars Cel­e­bra­tion at the Ana­heim Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Ana­heim, Cal­i­for­nia.

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