Tech startup: Orbotix



INITIAL LIGHT BULB Ian Bernstein has been building robots since he was 12. Adam Wilson wasn’t much older when he first developed commercial-grade software. Now in their late twenties, Bernstein and Wilson have teamed to found Orbotix, which they officially launched after completing the Boulder TechStars startup acceleration program last year. CEO Paul Berberian served as an adviser to the company during TechStars before joining the company as CEO later last year. Berberian previously founded Web-conferencing provider Raindance Communications and several other technology startups in the U.S. 36 corridor.

IN A NUTSHELL Orbotix’s first product, Sphero, is a robotic ball that users control with their iPhone, iPad or Android device. The initial target is gamers, but there are also yet-to-be-named practical applications, Berberian says.
“It’s an iconic robot that has a lot of magical properties,” he says. “A ball can go in any direction and never gets stuck.”
About the size of a baseball, Sphero has more than 145 functions, from rolling (top speed is about a meter per second) to glowing any color (thanks to built-in LEDs). “The only limitation is real-world physics.”
Comparing Sphero’s means of movement to a Segway sealed inside a ball, Berberian is bullish on the company’s short- and long-term prospects. “We look at this as being the next big portable game system, like a Sony Portable PlayStation. Whatever app you’re running changes the behavior of the ball.” Berberian highlights an Etch A Sketch-like drawing program (“Draw and Drive”) and racing, golf and Pong-like games as examples of Sphero apps to come.
Made by a Hong Kong-based manufacturing partner, Sphero debuts this month for $129.99, which includes a few basic apps and a charger. Hundreds of developers are signed up to produce additional forthcoming apps for Sphero’s open platform, earning Orbotix licensing fees as a result.
One such Developer, Denver-based Riptide Games, developed a sumo-wrestling game for a Sphero demo at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show and has a second app, Sphero Blox, slated for imminent debut that allows users to program the robot with “blocks” of commands. Riptide President Brian Robbins calls Sphero “a new way to envision game play” and “fricking cool,” adding, “I think people are going to be blown away.”

THE MARKET The worldwide market for video games was about $60 billion in 2011, with mobile gaming representing about 20 percent of the market. For comparison’s sake, worldwide movie ticket sales were about $30 billion in 2011.

FINANCING Orbotix has closed on two rounds of financing to date totaling $6 million. Investors include Boulder’s Foundry Group and Highway 12 Ventures in Boise, Idaho.

QUOTE OF THE NOTE: “If you take Sphero and start driving it around a hotel lobby, people think it’s a normal ball. They want to grab it and give it back to some kid. When they realize you are controlling it, they can’t believe it.” – Orbotix CEO Paul Berberian

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