One of the most enjoyable things I get to do in my job is to be involved in creating amazingly fun products. If you hang around in our office at Foundry Group you see plenty of Makerbots, Fitbits, an Oblong Mezzanine, an Occipital Structure Sensor, ModRobotics Cubelets, littleBits, 3D Robotics drones, and Spheros.
Now we’ve got some BB-8s (from Sphero) in our office. And if you want one, you can buy one right now.
The story of Sphero and BB-8 makes me smile a huge smile. I’m a massive Star Wars fan and saw the first Star Wars movie in 1977 when I was 11. I had a digital LED Star Wars watch from Texas Instruments that I wore proudly every day. Recently, I’ve been wearing Star Wars Vans. Yoda adorns lots of spaces in my world and “Do or do not, there is no try” is one of my mantras.
Sphero was originally known as Gearbox when it entered Techstars in Boulder in 2010. It’s origin story is summarized in the Techstars Founder Stories series and our journey with Ian Bernstein, Adam Wilson, Paul Berberian, and the team they subsequently assembled has been awesome.
Shortly after we led the seed round the company changed its name to Orbotix. It released its first product – Sphero – a little over a year later and was off to the races.
Last year, Orbotix did an unusual thing. With two successful products under its belt (Sphero and Ollie), the team was working on the next product concept. At the same time, Techstars had partnered with Disney to create the Disney Accelerator. While Orbotix was now a substantial company (with around 50 people), Paul, Ian, and Adam decided to go through the Disney Accelerator to create their next product. They had no idea what it would be, but they just wanted to isolate themselves from the rest of the company and invent the next thing. Paul spent 50% of his time in LA and the other 50% of his time in Boulder. Ian and Adam spent 100% of their time in LA and went through the first Disney Accelerator program.
The story of how BB-8 came out of this has been talked about plenty of times including an article in Wired and this morning on the front page of the Denver Post. It’s a great example of the power of a prepared mind, magical technology, and the Techstars corporate accelerator dynamic.
Today, Orbotix is called Sphero. The latest product from Sphero is BB-8. And, as a Star Wars geek, I couldn’t be happier to have a tiny part in bringing BB-8 to life.
Thanks for the all notes of concern about my bike accident on Thursday. I’m doing a lot better – still a little fuzzy and tired feeling – but on the mend. I’ve gotten confirmation that it wasn’t a hit and run – I clearly lost control of the bike during a turn, crashed into a curb, went over, and landed on my head. Lights out for a while.
I’m done biking. I’ve never really been a cyclist – I’ve always been a runner. Given that I’ve now had two single bike accidents that were 100% my fault, I’m clearly not cut out for being on a two-wheeled vehicle. So – back to running.
Over the weekend I took it easy and just let my mind drift around. A lot of friends came over to visit us which was nice. We hung out in our backyard by the pool, enjoyed the sunshine, and I let my mind drift around.
I had some weird dreams – some were clearly PTSD – but some were stuff I’ve read recently. I listened to Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion on Audible over the past two months on my bike rides and runs and lots of weird associations with it came up in my dreams, which, if you’ve read the books, is delightfully recursive.
All of this kept leading me back to robots and drones. We are investors in a number of companies in this arena, including Sphero, 3D Robotics, and Modular Robotics, and I think we are just at the beginning of a decade long revolution that has been a long time coming.
My friends at Techstars agree and last week launched – with Qualcomm – the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars. I mentioned it on my blog last week when writing about Mentors 8/18: Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts and I realized I missed a key nuance in the post, which was about engagement with new things.
It’s nice to talk about robots and drones. But if you don’t engage with them right now, you aren’t going to understand them, and the amazingly rapid trajectory they are going to be heading on. Reading science fiction can give you a sense of where they are going, but getting a drone right now from 3D Robotics, buying the new Ollie robot from Sphero, or grabbing the ModRobotics MOSS robot will change your understanding of these things. Oh – and these things are amazing fun.
Techstars and Qualcomm aren’t fooling around in this arena. Qualcomm gets this market – they’ve already been focused on it with their Snapdragon processor and work with Brain Corporation – and their participation in the program will be invaluable. The Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars, is another big leap forward for Qualcomm as they establish themselves as a leader in this market.
And – if you are an entrepreneur and want to go deep here along with hanging out in San Diego, check out the robotics revolution.
Today, Orbotix, the maker of Sphero, has raised a new round of $15.5 million, led by Shea Ventures and including new investor Grishin Robotics. We were the original investors in Orbotix and I joined their board in the fall of 2010 after they went through the Techstars Boulder program.
The first post I wrote about Orbotix included an aspirational phrase for what they were working on.
Orbotix is creating a new game platform that combines common physical objects, smart phones, and a software marketplace. Their first product will “reinvent the ball” through the creation of a robotic ball controlled by a smart phone.
They shipped Sphero 1.0 just before the end of 2011 so their first real year in the market was in 2012. Sphero 2.0 shipped in the fall of 2013 and was praised in reviews like the one in TechCrunch which gushed Sphero 2.0 Is Twice As Fast, Agile, And Awesome.
Connected play is a new category that I’m completely obsessed about. When the iPhone and iTouch came out, there was an incredible shift to mobile devices for games. Suddenly, the toy that kids were playing with was a virtual one – something that was occurring on a sheet of glass they held in their hands. For a kid like me who grew up with video games on an Apple ][, this was pretty awesome. But it felt limiting, especially as I watched kids (and adults) react to Sphero.
As someone who has seen behind the curtain at Orbotix, littleBits, and Modular Robotics, it is amazing what you can do, and where you can go, when you connect physical objects with a smartphone. As an investor in these three companies, I’m psyched to be part of inventing a new category we are calling connected play.
Ever since Orbotix was founded, we’ve been talking about robots and education and how Sphero could play a role. Last week, my friends at Orbotix rolled out a new program called SPRK which stands for Schools, Parents, Robots, and Kids. They’ve already got six lesson plans up with more coming.
To get a feel for the potential of Sphero in education, take five minutes out of your day and watch the video below. At the minimum, it’ll make you smile.
I’ve loved being involved in Orbotix from the very beginning. I got to know Adam and Ian, the founders, even before they got into Techstars. Their original company name was GearBox and they probably wouldn’t haven’t gotten into Techstars except that both Nicole Glaros and I said “we love these guys – fuck it – let’s try a hardware company this time.”
Paul Berberian, one of Adam and Ian’s lead mentors during Techstars joined them as the third co-founder before demo day and we led the seed round shortly after. Orbotix is now 40 people, with hundreds of thousands of Sphero’s out in the wild and being played with, and a new product (currently codenamed 2B) coming out this fall.
The company is on the forefront of a new category I like to call “connected play.” It’s not a static toy, like kids have been playing with since the beginning of time. It’s not a game on a pane of glass like an iPhone or iPad. It’s a dynamic toy that you can play with online, via your pane of glass, or in the real world, with friends, connected together online. And it gets upgraded continually, with new software and new games.
I’ve talked in the past about how I love origin stories. I bet you didn’t know that before there was Sphero, Adam and Ian made an iPhone-based garage door opener well before that was cool and trendy. Enjoy the three minute origin story of Orbotix.
If you wonder how kids describe a Sphero, this short video will make you smile. And then laugh. And then smile some more. One of these kids needs to be on The Voice.
Sphero says, “buy me, buy me, buy me.”
I’m a big fan of Jason Calacanis’ show This Week In Startups. I usually run naked (no headphones) but when I listen to something it’s usually an interview or a book.
Amy and I had dinner last night with Paul Berberian and his wife Renee and Paul mentioned Jason had interviewed him at Techstars FounderCon in Chicago a few weeks ago. So – I grabbed my iPhone, downloaded the interview, and listened to it. Dynamite stuff.
Earlier in the morning I read Jason’s post on LinkedIn titled The Great Venture Capital Rotation. I think it was originally titled “The End of Venture Capital Sort Of” (based on the URL). In addition to being provocative, it lined up nicely along a few others posts on this topic from Fred Wilson (Leading vs Following), Hunter Walk (AngelList Syndicates Will Also Pit Angel Against Angel) and Howard Lindzon (So You Want to Angel Invest…Be Prepared to Lead and Follow.) Naval, Nivi, and the gang at AngelList have really busted some stuff open and it’s interesting to watch it play out.
Teaching kids to program is not an easy task – their attention span is short and what they are able to accomplish in a brief period of time is often uninspiring which results in them losing attention quickly.
Robots help a lot with this!
The Orbotix team has turned their Sphero into a fantastic programming aid to introduce coding to kids as young as 4th grade. In about an hour kids will be commanding their robot to drive geometric patterns while also learning a bit about angles, degrees, time and distance calculations, loops and conditional branching. If your my age, you might remember Logo and turtle graphics. It turns out to be really cool to toss a robot into the mix, instead of just a computer screen.
Coding is done via a simple app on either Android or iOS devices and sent to the Sphero via Bluetooth. The younger kids learn to program using a simple scripting language developed by Orbotix called MacroLab – the older kids learn BASIC which Sphero can interpret to do some complex tasks.
Orbotix is hosting a “Sphero Rangers” event at the Google offices here in Boulder this Saturday from 11am to 2pm. Robots and programming devices will be provided – but bring your smartphone if you want to use your own. Attendees will also be able to get a Sphero at a discounted price. If interested sign up here: https://www.meetup.com/