Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Interview with Paul Berberian, Orbotix
Our interview for this morning is with Paul Berberian, the CEO of Boulder-based Orbotix (www.orbotix.com), maker of the Sphero robotic ball. Paul gave us the story about how the firm came about, how he got involved, and the company's latest venture round. Paul, who is an experienced executive--having been CEO of Raindance Communications, co-founded Market Force Information, among others--told us the story about how Orbotix went from TechStars to a funded company.
Where in the world did the idea for a robotic ball come from?
Paul Berberian: Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson founded Orbotix back in February of 2010. It was born out of Ian's idea. He was working in a robotics development house called RoadNarrows Robotics, and he wanted to control a robot with his iPhone. He couldn't find anything that would do that, so he decided to build it. He applied to TechStars, thinking that it would be useful to use an iPhone to turn the lights on, your car engine, control your garage door, or as a remote control. As part of that, I became the lead mentor of the firm at TechStars during 2010. Over the course of the summer, learning about what they were doing, I started to learn about their backgrounds, which is very strong in robotics. We all kind of looked at each other, and figured out--they weren't really interested in light switches or just remote controls, they really were interested in robotics. I told them--you should go after your passion, at what you're good at.
Other mentors at Techstars gave them similar feedback, which resulted in the idea of a robotic ball. Ian had actually built a robotic ball as a teenager, which would follow the sun around. A robotic ball is considered a very complex device, but very elegant. It's very hard to build--which is why it hasn't been commercialized--but by using the iPhone or Android, you now have this incredibly powerful computer which can handle processing. The ball becomes the object of the game, and you end up with a kind of mixed reality device--it's half virtual, and half real world. We've never seen a device like that before. And, the ball is very approachable and cool, even though mechanically, it's very hard to create. It's a marvel on so many levels--on the OS, the engineering, mechanical, electrical, firmware, and software, not to mention the conceptual level, where processing is done half on board and half on the iPhone.
This company is quite a difference from Market Force Information, Raindance, enterprise software companies--what drew you to get involved in this project?
Paul Berberian: The thing I look for most, is something I can get excited and passionate about. I really like working with smart people, and these guys are some of the smartest software engineers and hardware design guys I know. They've got a ton of energy. It's all about the people and the technology. I'm a geek at heart--I started writing software as a teenager, and continued writing software through my second business--and I just loved the idea of this product and trying to create a consumer product. I've had ventures in the consumer area, none of which became a huge success, but I've always wanted to move into that space, I liked the team, and I also saw they were leveraging the power of the iPhone.
When will people actually be able to get their hands on Sphero?
Paul Berberian: Our goal is sometime in Q4 of this year, before the holiday season. We already have people signing up for reservations on gosphero.com.
There's an open component and aspect to Sphero--can you talk about that?
Paul Berberian: The idea behind Sphero, is we don't want it to just be a remote control ball. If we do that, it' s just another radio controlled toy. That's not what we want. We see ourselves as a true, new gaming and entertainment device, which can do a whole bunch of things. The software we've written for the ball is built on an API. That API is accessible, so you can write an Android or iOS app to control the ball. You don't need to know anything about robots or communications. Why that is interesting, is you can do different things with that. Unlike any RC thing in your life today, there is actually a two way, real-time communications stream between the Sphero and your phone or smart device. You know everything about it in real time, whether that's position, speed, or heading, if you hit something, if you're moving, if you're upside down, what the color of the lights are, and so on. You can use all of that information to affect game play or the application experience. We have games where the ball controls the iPhone, instead of the iPhone controlling the ball. We have games where 2 people can drive one ball at the same time. We have games where we detect when the ball hits a wall, so you can score points like demolition derby. The gameplay that happens, when you can combine the virtual and real world, is completely different than what would happen if you were stuck on a screen, or with a board game. That's the reason we wanted to have an API. We don't think we have a license to all the smart ideas in the world, and we think other people will come up with ideas, and can explore developing them. There is nothing more exciting than having a developer write some code, and push a button and see something in the real world move.
What has been the most difficult part so far with Orbotix getting up and running?
Paul Berberian: The sheer speed at which we're trying to operate. It usually takes at least two years for a consumer electronics device to get to the shelf. We're trying to do it in half the time. It's moving at an incredible pace, and we're just trying to keep up.
Finally, you recently raised some impressive funding for the company. How difficult was it for you to raise the round?
Paul Berberian: it was the easiest round of my life. We didn't even have to finish our presentation. Everyone got it, and understood the team's capabilities. At the end of TechStars, at CES, you could see the monumental amount of work which had been accomplished, and saw the ability of the team to execute. That gave our investors a bunch of confidence that the needed to take the next step, and invest. We also had thousands of people signing up, saying they wanted to buy these as soon as they come out, so we knew we also had genuine interest.
Thanks, and good luck!