If TechStars ever needs to put two founders’ faces on a poster, there’s a pretty good chance that Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson of Orbotix would get the call. 

The co-founders had, as Wilson put it, "a mutual robot connection." They wanted to build something cool. They met at a brewpub, and the next day, built that something. After raising about $7 million, they built and sold hundreds of thousands of their cool thing. They’re about to close on another round of financing, of about $7 to $10 million, and they figure that’s all the money they’ll need to raise before, you know, taking over the world.

Orbotix’s "cool thing"--their first product--is called Sphero. It’s about the size and shape of a tennis ball, and can be controlled with your phone. The founders made the prototype by 3D printing the shell and prying the electronics out of a smart phone. At first glance, even the finished product seems like a really expensive way to amuse a cat, toddler, or drunken college student.

But Orbotix’s founders and investors, who include Brad Feld of Foundry Group and Mark Solon of Highway 12 Ventures, see something much bigger. "This is not a ball that you are rolling around with your iphone," says Solon. "This is literally at the cutting edge, blending the physical and the virtual world." You can begin to see this in Orbotix’s more recent effort, Sharky, which allows you to superimpose an animated Shark on your Sphero. If your Sphero hits a wall, your Sharky gets dizzy and confused. "When we first tried it we had kids that were so excited they couldn’t even believe it was real," says Wilson.

Bernstein and Wilson met their future CEO, Paul Berberian, during their time at TechStars, which is also where they met Feld and Solon. Without someone with business experience, says Wilson, "It was a little scary, because you have two engineers who are good at making things, and we just assume someone is going to sell it. Now we trust Paul entirely." Berberian is a serial entrepreneur with experience taking companies public, and got about a third of Orbotix when he joined.

Orbotix’s founders, says Solon, "believe that controlling sophisticated robots from an entertainment perspective is going to be big," noting that the gaming industry is bigger than the motion picture industry. "I’m not going to argue with them. They’re in it."

Published on: May 28, 2013