Anyone who has stepped foot into a classroom — or even a toy store — knows that robotics are top of mind for many educators and parents. Helping lead the revolution of affordable STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) devices is Sphero. Founded in 2010, Sphero has been making recent headlines with its Star Wars-inspired BB-8 droid, and it aims to put a robot in every home. Paul Berberian, Sphero CEO, answered some of our questions about connected toys and the company’s plans.
TWICE: What motivated Sphero to enter the connected toy market?
Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein developed Sphero, an app-enabled robotic ball, in the Techstars accelerator program in 2010. Originally, the team considered ways to utilize a smartphone’s Bluetooth capabilities to control household items like a garage door opener, but eventually settled on the robotic ball. A robot built for entertainment, not utility, was what excited initial Techstars investors and mentors. [I was a Techstars mentor and] joined the company as CEO following the program.
Although entering the connected play space wasn’t an intentional move for Sphero, the company quickly became a leader in the newly created category and now has a number of national retail partners. What makes Sphero products so unique is the playfulness of a toy with the combined with the sophistication and mechanics of great technology.
TWICE: As tablets come down in price, do you see that as a big opportunity for connected toys?
We see a big opportunity with tablets especially within the education community as more educators and school systems adopt the use of the devices within their curriculum. Educators were one of the first groups to embrace our products as a teaching tool for everything from programming to art projects. We now offer classroom sets and developed activities and an online community for educators to leverage Sphero and the line of products as a tool for teaching students.
TWICE: What has been the biggest surprise as you participate in the category?
One of the biggest surprises has been the supportive community that’s formed around our products and our brand. Our educator community continues to inspire and amaze us with the ways they are using the Sphero products. The education community’s initial response to Sphero led us to develop SPRK by Sphero which is designed to teach the basics of coding and programing using a new app platform and corresponding clear Sphero that showcase the inner workings of the robot.
The developer community is another engaging and supportive group that rapidly adopted the products and grew the category experience. Our intentional has always been to keep our product open source and provide SDKs so that our community can contribute apps and games for the end user. Developers create the future and we want to continue to engage and nurture that community by providing tools and resources for them to express their creativity. We’re constantly amazed by what this community created and how they use our baseline product as a platform to expand their own expertise.
TWICE: The biggest challenge? Sphero shares a similar challenge with the many companies who are vying for a slice of the consumer’s discretionary spending: make people want to buy your product. As the leader of the connected play space, Sphero has the additional challenge of convincing the consumer why they need a robot and then keeping that product special, new, and engaging.
Sphero does this through software updates that help to constantly evolve our line of products and their capabilities and provide a new customer experience. We’re able to listen to what the community is looking for and respond without asking them to invest an additional amount of money into our brand – this is something most other companies aren’t able to do.
TWICE: Where do you see the connected toy market — and the personal robotics market — in the next 10 years? What do you think retailers should prepare for?
When the company was founded, Sphero had a goal to put a robot in every home. That goal doesn’t seem so far in the future anymore. The latest Star Wars film is introducing a rolling ball companion droid, BB-8. Through the Disney Techstars accelerator program, we connected with Bob Iger and Lucas Films. Iger came to us and asked if we would be able to create a consumer version of this character and thus, BB-8 by Sphero was born. Since its launch on Sept. 4, BB-8 by Sphero has been immensely popular with Star Wars fans and consumers across the globe. Our version of this rolling ball droid is now in thousands of homes and provides a great introduction to consumers that may not have thought they wanted a robot in their home.
TWICE: Are there any plans or surprises coming down the pipeline that you can share?
We plan to continue to improve and update current products through additional software and firmware updates. We also have a creative and engineering team that is constantly developing innovative products and accessories we can bring to market.