Oct 31, 2016 - 10:30am

How a Small Robotics Startup Helped Disney Bring BB-8 to Life

Welcome to #BizUnited, a new campaign highlighting the ways in which small businesses and large companies work together across America. Check back periodically for new installments, and share your company’s story on social media with the hashtag #BizUnited.

Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein were running a small but successful robotics company called Sphero when they received an invitation to attend the Disney Accelerator program – basically, a networking and mentorship symposium for technology startups – in the summer of 2014. The pair had already attended a similar program called TechStars, but this new opportunity to work directly with Disney’s mentors to develop new entertainment-focused experiences and products was too good to pass up.

“Sphero was already making money, but we were looking for guidance to take our products to the next level, to infuse a deeper story into our robots,” Wilson said in an interview.

Off to Burbank they went. Little did they know, the decision would later spawn the most popular toy on the planet and would help their robotics startup make the jump to hyperspace – all thanks to a little collaboration, some speedy innovation, and an adorable orange droid named BB-8.

Four years earlier, Wilson and Bernstein were just two passionate robotics engineers in Boulder, Colorado, who wondered why there weren’t more smartphone-controlled devices in our increasingly digital world. They applied to Techstars Boulder that year and toyed with ideas for phone-controlled cars, motorcycles, and garage doors. As they contemplated one “smart” gadget after another, something stared to become clear: They wanted to focus their efforts on something fun.

Not long afterward, the first iteration of their company’s app-controlled toy ball, Sphero, a simple ball-shaped robot with a face, was born. Still, the two business partners believed they need something more – their beloved toy, they agreed, needed to have character and personality, and that would require a new level of storytelling and creativity.

With that idea in mind, Sphero accepted the invitation to the Disney Accelerator. During the course of the 90-day program, Wilson and Bernstein were granted 15 minutes to pitch Disney CEO Bob Iger, and they showed him their original toy, merely hoping for some advice or insight from one of the industry’s top executives. By sheer coincidence, however, Iger has just come from the top-secret set of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens film, and he pulled out his phone and began scrolling through photos.

He finally landed on the one he had been hunting for – one of the first photos of an orange-and-white, soccer-ball-esque droid dubbed BB-8. At that point, most Disney executives weren’t even aware that the character existed. Still, the Disney CEO asked if Wilson and Bernstein thought they could build an app-enabled toy based on the (soon-to-be-iconic) character. In those 15 minutes, the opportunity of a lifetime for these two up-and-coming entrepreneurs had been forged.

However, there was lots of work to do – and little time.

“This character was an intricate one,” Wilson recalls. “After seeing our namesake product, Iger challenged us to build a prototype of the Droid he showed us.”

Problem was, the team had only 10 months to create a BB-8 robot to sell to the masses. They had to add a movable ball head to their original Sphero and design the product to make sure it rolled as smoothly as possible. While it was no easy task, Sphero’s team pulled it off, and when BB-8 hit stores the next year, it sold out the first day. One month of BB-8’s sales roughly equaled the entire company’s sales for the year prior, and by the end of 2015, Wilson and Bernstein’s startup had sold a million little orange robots.

“Back in 2014, when we were dreaming of ways to infuse more character into our robots, working with Disney seemed like a stretch for our little startup out of Boulder,” Wilson said. “The partnership and mentorship we’ve received from the entire team at The Walt Disney Company has been so valuable.”

“We’ve learned that story matters,” Bernstein added. “People identify with characters, not technology. But our technology can bring those characters to life in a way the world has never seen before.”

Of course, Sphero isn’t the only side benefitting from the partnership. Through its licensing agreement, Disney takes a percentage on every BB-8 toy sold, and while the company sells billions in Star Wars retail products every year, boasting the world’s most popular selling toy in 2015 helps the mega-company stay out front in the increasingly competitive toy industry.

It’s clear that Disney and its CEO recognize that Sphero wasn’t an anomaly, either, and that if the company wants to stay on top, partnership with innovative technology startups is a must.

“The more touch points we can create with the new world order, with changes that are occurring in our market every day, that will have profound effects on our business long term—the better off we are,” Iger told those gathered at that 2014 Disney Accelerator Program. He went on to note that the larger Disney grows, the more important it is to be work with tech startups.

In particular, Iger added, The ability to change with the times and by learning about by being introduced to new young talent with a completely young talent—that’s a great thing.”

The Disney Accelerator program, which the company’s senior vice president of innovation Michael Abrams describes as “a graduate-level class in media and entertainment” plays a big part in keeping Mickey Mouse’s finger on Silicon Valley’s pulse. Other startups coming out of the accelerator in recent years include ChoreMonster, whose app encourages children to do chores by making it a game (now with a little help from Disney’s Inside Out characters) and MakieLab, which helps kids bring characters to life by building their own customizable 3D-printed toys.

“If you’re going to win big, you have to get in early,” Iger said in an interview with Fortune. “If you get in late, the marketplace is so dynamic and the technology’s changing so much that oftentimes you make an investment in something that you’ve witnessed working, but it’s on the cusp on vast change.”

Meanwhile, back at Sphero headquarters, the company has its sights firmly set on the future, too. Though the team says it can’t talk about what’s next for the Sphero-Disney partnership, Wilson and Bernstein say they’re focused on continuing to advance robotic technology. They’ve recently built up their Labs team, which consists of a group of technologists, engineers, and robot brain architects, among others, all of whom are determined to take the company to the next level.

Sphero even launched what it calls the SPRK education program, in which the company brings robots to schools to introduce students to hands-on programming. The goal of the program is to help get kids interested in math, engineering and computer science.

“We are constantly pushing the limits when it comes to robotic technology,” Bernstein said. “Our goal is a robot in every home and in every classroom, and we’re confident we can accomplish that.”

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