Orbotix Rolls Out Next-Gen Sphero, Considers Possible New Directions

8/14/13Follow @MichaelXBD

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a clear vision of where they were headed.

“It was two really, really smart guys working on something robotics-related,” said Brad Feld, managing director of the Foundry Group venture capital firm and a member of the selection committee that year. “They really had no idea what they [would be] doing, there wasn’t a business thing they were trying to do, or even a product. It was just ‘Hey, we’re cool, smart software and hardware hackers, we know robotics, and we’re really excited about doing something neat.”

When they met with Feld at the start of Techstars, they had three product ideas, which included an electronic door lock and what would become Sphero. The lock looked to be the product with the biggest market opportunity and the clearest way forward from a technical standpoint.

As for the smartphone-controlled robotic ball idea, it wasn’t quite clear how it would work or who would want it. But it only took a little prodding to see that was what Wilson and Bernstein had their heart set on.

“‘It’s an incredibly hard problem, if we do it well it could be amazing, there are so many different things we could do with it. Some could be stupid, some could be great, some we haven’t even thought about yet,’” Feld recalled them saying. “What Adam was showing at that point was just obsession.”

Feld soon became a member of Orbotix’s board of directors, and Foundry Group is a major investor.

Bernstein said they came up with the idea for Sphero during a late night brainstorming session during the first week of Techstars. The starting point was doing “something neat” and ambitious with robots.

“We wanted to change the way people interact with physical devices and create an amazing experience around that,” Bernstein said.

They rejected several ideas, like remote controlled cars and planes, before thinking about a ball.

“We liked the ball because it was a blank slate. There were just so many different things you could do with it,” Wilson said. “I’d say within that night, we came up with the idea for augmented reality…and the idea for the apps kept coming and coming.”

But finding the vision might have been the easiest part. Since that night the company has had to master hardware and software development, mass manufacturing, retail marketing, and the other challenges of creating and growing a startup.

“From our point of view, I didn’t think we had any idea how hard it would be to get there,” Wilson said.

All of that work reinventing the ball means that with its next products, Orbotix shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel, Wilson said Tuesday.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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