Sphero Founders Story: From TechStars to Ballers

03 May 2012

It's high time we feature the founders of Orbotix on our blog. Their stories are filled with all things robots and tech, setting the perfect stage for the creation of the robot we know today - Sphero. Read on to find out how these creative techies came to meet, develop their ideas, and ultimately form an entire company.

Ian Bernstein was raised in New Mexico and home-schooled from a young age, where he initially developed an interest in robotics taking all the household electronics apart. At the age of 12 Ian attended the International BEAM Robotics Games and was hooked. From that point forward, Ian’s interest and passion for robotics grew as he won awards worldwide for his robots. He attended both New Mexico Tech and Colorado State University, all while working at a custom robot development shop and running his own web-development company. Ian realized that there was something lacking in the world of smartphone-controlled devices, and saw an opportunity to get involved with the TechStars program. As TechStars requires teams to compete, Ian joined forces with Adam Wilson (our other founder) and the two began their thesis under “phone-controlled robotics.”

Adam is a Colorado native from Woodland Park. Like Ian, Adam grew up obsessed with all things robot, but his interests were on the software side. He attended the University of Northern Colorado and graduated with a degree in Mathematics and Physics. Adam developed custom software apps during his free time and worked in penetration testing for RMSTek – a true hacker at heart. He was involved in a NASA project with Internet controlled robotics when Ian reached out to him to get rolling with TechStars.

During the initial stages of the program, Ian and Adam dabbled with phone-controlled robotics to program everything from cars, motorcycles, to garage doors. But along the way, they realized they needed to do what they loved. One night an epiphany struck – why not make something fun. How about a ball? Both Ian and Adam were hesitant but, after a conversation with investor Brad Feld, they knew they'd landed on the perfect idea.

I [Feld] looked quietly at each of them and said “which idea do you love?” In unison, they responded with “the ball.” Do you love any of the other ideas? Silence. Then I asked “so why is there even a choice in your mind?” One of them responded with “well – some of the people we’ve talked to thought the ball was a stupid idea and there was no market for it.” I responded with “F*ck that – do what you love.” (Excerpt from Feld's Blog)

Our CEO Paul Berberian and Brad Feld mentored the team through TechStars, and the pitch raised a million-dollar first round. Ian and Adam developed a handful of custom balls and a driving app. Sphero and the beginnings of their company, Orbotix, were truly revealed to the masses at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2011. A perfect storm of events set the stage for a whirlwind 2011 and a successful product launch over the last holiday season. Orbotix has grown from a couple of robotic enthusiasts to 30 employees, and 2012 is shaping up to be a killer year for Sphero, the world’s first robotic ball controlled from your smartphone.


Q: "How did they come up with the idea and the prototype?" - Jordan

Ian & Adam: We knew we wanted a device that was smartphone controlled and worked over Bluetooth. We brainstormed a lot about what our killer device was, and one night at 3am I said "We just need something simple, something I can pull out of my pocket, throw on the table, and it does something cool." Adam responded, "What about a marble?" And then it hit me, "What about a robotic ball?!"

The initial prototype was very simple and made from a couple gear motors, a plastic shell, and our dev board that we had created for prototyping our technology. You can learn more about it here.

Q: "How did you two guys meet, and how did you actually get the idea?" - Filip

Ian: I had come up with the idea of controlling physical devices with smartphones, but knew I couldn't do it alone. Very early on, a mutual friend introduced me to Adam. He took charge of everything phone-related while I focused on business and hardware. The funny thing is, for the first four or five months we worked together, Adam didn't even own a phone. All he had was our Nexus One (with no service) that we used for development.

Q: "What is Ian's favorite flavor of snow?" - Mike

Ian: The untouched, super deep fluffy kind as I'm riding my snowboard down the mountain.

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