“In this video, as you can see, I’m controlling this robotic ball with my smartphone…you might ask yourself, ‘What’s so great about that?’ Well, it’s a robotic ball controlled with a smartphone.” The emphatic opening lines in Adam Wilson’s investor pitch for Gearbox during Boulder 2010’s Demo Day made the entire audience erupt in laughter and applause.
“It’s so crazy to watch our demo video,” says Ian Bernstein, founder and chief technology officer. “To go back and watch everything we said we would do and know that we’re actually doing it. We are twenty-six employees as of an hour ago and we’re hiring every day.” Now renamed Orbotix and expanding the capabilities of their product, Sphero, Wilson and Berstein have come a long way.
Bernstein first applied with the idea to control devices over Bluetooth, making remote controls out of phones. With an idea that needed a big team and without a co-founder, his first application wasn’t accepted.
Wilson and Bernstein met at the end of December in 2009 after a mutual engineer friend introduced them. “Adam is a software genius,” says Bernstein. “We iterated on his idea using my hardware and electronics experience and came up with a few videos for an application for the Boulder Techstars program. Adam graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley on May 7th of 2010 and we immediately dove into the Boulder program when we were accepted. We have been working hardcore since then.”
Wilson elaborates. “We started out before Techstars trying to control robotics with our phone. We quickly moved away from the hobbyist market and started doing Sphero. What could we make that was a robot and infinitely expansible to the world? With an open SDK and API, developers can write their own apps and games that control this ball.” The potential is unlimited.
A couple thousand dollars generously given by family members fueled the cost of the dev board that was used to film the application videos for Nicole Glaros. “That’s what got us off the ground,” Wilson confides. “We bought one Android phone and that’s where we started. We had the seed money from Techstars but that money only helped us for the first two months because building hardware gets pricey. We were fortunate enough to pull together an angel round at $50K that pulled us through Demo Day at the end of the program and we were able to show an awesome prototype to investors.”
After Demo Day, Orbotix raised $1.1M, the majority of it led by Foundry Group and various angel investors. In April of 2011, they raised their series B of $5M, led by Highway 12 Ventures and Foundry Group. Wilson and Bernstein are both quick to attribute their success to their CEO, Paul Berberian, who joined the team serendipitously after mentoring them during the Techstars program. He brings over twelve years of entrepreneurship and running high tech companies to the team. “Having Paul on our side has made everything so easy,” Bernstein explains. “He’s constantly out there playing with the product, doing demos, testing everything.” In an interview with Tech Cocktail earlier this year, Berberian said, “Everyone sees the world through the lens of his or her own experience. Some folks can see potential, and others can only see what is two feet in front of their face. Sphero is absolutely magical from a technological standpoint, and the potential is just beginning to be tapped. If you bought a new computer and all it had on it was a chess app, all you would see is an automated chess machine. But what makes your computer special is it can run numerous apps. You might use your computer for writing, while someone else uses it for gaming. Same machine, different function. Sphero is the same – there are a small number of apps today, but what is developed tomorrow will change how you think about robots.”
A typical work week at Orbotix is jam-packed these days. Wilson is always in the office and Bernstein has spent much of his time in China, traveling constantly to maintain their hardware manufacturing responsibilities. But the long startup hours are not without their rewards. “We have so much fun,” Wilson says with a grin, looking a bit like the cat that got the canary. “The very first kid that got a Sphero as a gift posted a video of his ball on Christmas morning. He had drawn his own chalk racetrack in his backyard.” “It never gets old for us,” Bernstein adds. “It’s interesting to watch all the games people play with their pets, the videos they film. Skylar Castator (junior developer) made a remote control car that can drive around and we build a lot of chariots and fun, cute things.”
“This is so humbling,” Wilson tells me as I’m gathering my things to head back to the Techstars office a block away. “When I come into our offices at night and all of the rooms are empty, I tend to daydream about weird stuff. All of these employees’ lives are changed by ideas. I won’t call myself successful until I can walk into a major electronics store like Best Buy and see something I built on the shelf. It’s strange to realize this is a company I created. I could re-arrange the entire office and decide we’re a cat-shaped balloon business instead. I won’t…but I could.”