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Yesterday, President Obama was in Boulder. The guys at Orbotix showed up and got him to play around with a Sphero. Watch the video (it’s pretty awesome) and then I’ll tell you the story of how they made it happen. The short answer – always be ready to demo your product – you never know when the President (or a key customer) is nearby.
Our main characters for this story are Ross Ingram and Damon Arniotes. Ross is the one demoing Sphero to the President. Ross is Mr. Everywhere for Orbotix – his job is to handle every hack event, be at every party, and show up everywhere that might be interesting with a bunch of Spheros. Damion is the guy filming everything on his iPhone. His full time job is to video Sphero in the wild and tell the story all the time.
On Monday night after Ross and Damon found out the President would be at CU Boulder they starting talking about how awesome it would be to get a Sphero into Obama’s hands. No one knew Obama’s route around CU and Boulder, but Ross and Damon drove around the Campus and the Hill (next to CU) to scope things out. I’m betting at least one beer was consumed.
On Tuesday, they drove to CU with Spheros in hand but still didn’t know where Obama was going to be. They had to leave Damon’s camera gear behind because of security and the fact that Damon isn’t press (apparently only press is allowed cameras).
While they were driving to campus they saw a bunch of yellow police tape and took a guess that this was a spot that might see some action. If you are a fly fisherman, you know this drill. Go where you think the fish are going to be and wait. They found a parking spot near the Sink (one of the venerable old college hangouts on the Hill) and parked.
Ross called Paul Berberian, Orbotix’s CEO around 6pm and asked Paul if they should drive Sphero past the yellow tape towards Obama. Paul, who went to the Air Force Academy, responded with “No fucking way – you’ll end up in jail – remote control ball rolling to the president – bad idea.”
Around 6:45 Secret Service starts cherry picking folks from the crowd to be in the receiving line for the President. Magically Ross and Damon get picked – they get screened with metal detectors and are allowed in with Sphero. A girl with a Slurpie had to throw it away – apparently Slurpies are more dangerous than robotic balls. I bet she had one of those neon blue ones.
The President rolls up minutes later and starts shaking hands. Damon starts filming on his iPhone. Ross greets the President and asks him to see his iPhone to drive the robot ball. The President immediately gets it; Ross asks him if he wants to drive it - and the rest is what you saw on the video. While this is happening, the Secret Service rushed in around Ross and Damon as soon as the President engaged, but the President kept going with Sphero so they hung back.
Someone in the crowd took the Sphero while Ross and Damon frantically played back to video to see if they got it. They did and the rest is memorialized for history – this is the first time we are aware of that a President of the United States has played with a robotic ball controlled with an iPhone.
There are two big lessons here. First, always be ready. Second, hire amazing guys like Ross and Damon and let the loose on the world. Guys – incredible!
Every year my partners at Foundry Group and I go to CES. We aren’t boondoggle guys – our expeditions together are limited to a quarterly offsite, often at Jason’s house (10 minutes from our office), and one trip a year with spouses and significant others somewhere. So CES has been a nice tradition for us where we get to travel together for a few days, hang out in nerd and gadget heaven, and spend time with a bunch of entrepreneurs we work with who are here.
There were two memes going around that I heard about CES earlier this week. The first came out of a set of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who said something like “CES is irrelevant – no one important is there and nothing interesting gets launched.” The second come out of a set of VCs in Silicon Valley who said something like “we go to CES to look for new companies to invest in that are outside the mainstream.”
I found both of these comments bizarre since we don’t view CES through either of those lenses. First, I think CES is incredibly relevant as it is a forward view of what the broad consumer electronics industry will be releasing and shipping over the next 12 months. Many of the CE companies and products operate on an annual product cycle and this helps me understand what is going to this year, at which point I don’t have to think hard about it for another year (yeah – I pay attention – but I have a really useful context). In addition, every technology buyer and supplier in the world is here wandering around so if you interact with any of them, it’s an extremely efficient way to spend time with them.
Next, we don’t actually search for new investments at CES although we tend to have some interesting meetings with folks who happen to be here. There are definitely cases where we got face time with entrepreneurs who we hadn’t yet spent a lot of time with previously – Pogoplug and MakerBot come to mind from years past. But we were already talking to them – CES was just an efficient way for all four of us to spent time with them.
If you want the multimedia version of what I just said, watch Jason’s interview on Bloomberg from yesterday.
We had three companies with large presences here this year – MakerBot, Orbotix, and Fitbit. They are each having an awesome show and I’m super psyched about their new products. It’s extremely fun – as an investor – to just hang out in a booth and watch the traffic and listen to the interactions.
We always have two dinners – one with just entrepreneurs we work with and one that is a broader audience. Each dinner was a highlight for me and if I do nothing else at CES, I’ll always come for these dinners.
I ended up with a series of meetings on Tuesday – three of them were with entrepreneurs who I’ve been talking to about various things. All three were really relevant and interesting and not surprising each was in our human computer interaction theme which I discussed on an NPR interview yesterday with Steve Henn titled Humans and Machines: Beyond Touch.
Finally, I had plenty that is the weirdness of Las Vegas. I had a total meltdown Wednesday morning and ended up spending the day in my room. I had a death defying run on the Las Vegas strip. And I’m just came back through a smoke filled casino from a breakfast with some of the leaders of the Las Vegas startup community (see more on the Startup Communities site soon.) This afternoon I board a plane to Boston and bid CES 2012 farewell. But I’ll be back again next year.
I’ve been intrigued with robots since I was a little kid. When I was at MIT in the 1980′s, there was a huge movement around the future of robotics. A few of my friends, most notably Colin Angle, went on to do something and co-founded iRobot which he still runs 25 years later. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to robots or robotics in the 1990′s as I got caught up in the Internet, but started thinking about them again about five years ago. Over the past few years, as part of our human computer interaction theme, we’ve invested in several companies doing “robotics related stuff” including MakerBot (3D Printers) and Orbotix (a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone). I’ve also looked at lots of robot-related companies and thought hard about the notion that the machines have already taken over and are just waiting patiently for us to catch up.
Recently I met with Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor at CU Boulder in the Computer Science department. Nikolaus does research on multi-robot systems and has a bunch of great commercial ideas about robotics. As we were talking, we started discussing other people in Boulder who were working on robotics related stuff. It turns out to be a long list and Nikolaus asked “why don’t people talk more about all the robotics stuff going on in Boulder?” I had no clue so I said “let’s start a movement – titled Boulder is for Robots. Let’s get anyone doing robotics related stuff together and create some entrepreneurial critical mass around this, just like we have for the software / Internet community.”
We agreed that Boulder Is For Robots is a great call to action and are having our first Boulder Is For Robots Meetup on February 7th from 5pm – 10pm. Bring your robots – I’ll supply pizza and beer. You have to sign up in the Boulder Is For Robots Meetup group to find out the location.
In the mean time, following are some thoughts on the robot-related stuff going on in Boulder from Nikolaus. If you are working on something interesting, please add to the list.
Why “Boulder is for Robots” can be tied to a single observation: when I was working as a Post-Doc at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, almost everything we ordered to build robots came from somewhere less than an hour from Boulder. Why is this important? Let’s consider how Steve Wozniak developed the Apple computer, which revolutionized the computer industry from a garage. Did he really create a computer from scratch, transistor by transistor? Or did he emerge from hundreds of tinkerers that relied on a large community that provided mail-order electronic kits, do-it-your-self magazines, inspirational people, and hundreds of man years of university research? The bay area was indeed the place to be at the time with the Homebrew Computer Club and marketing genius Steve Jobs who convinced Wozniak to sell his design, laying the foundation for Apple. Building robots is much more complex than building computers, however: robots consist not only of computers, but also of sensors and mechanisms that need to be invented, re-combined, and modified to create a compelling product. I therefore believe that being part of a community is even more important for developing successful robot companies and having all the tools, know-how, and manpower close by provides a unique competitive advantage.
Boulder provides this infrastructure: For example, Sparkfun enables tens of thousands of amateurs and researchers to create electronic and mechatronic artifacts. They do that not only by retailing hard-to-acquire electronic components and innovative pre-fabbed modules that drastically increase the productivity of hobbyists, entrepreneurs and researchers across the nation, but they also provide free access to a wealth of educational resources that allow amateurs to mimic industrial processes, often just using kitchen equipment. Similarly, Acroname and RoadNarrow Robotics retails sensors and ready-made devices for building state-of-the-art robots, including laser scanners, motor drivers, and digital servos. All three companies actively develop hardware and software that make the integration of ever more complex mechatronic products possible in garages. They also contribute to a pool of “Can-Do” people that spin off companies.
Boulder turns out to be also a hub for manufacturing: close-by Aurora is home to one of the best deals in PCB Manufacturing ($33/each) in the country (Advanced Circuits) and the first – and still only – assembly service in the nation (AAPCB) that assembles single boards for less than $50.
While developers across the nation benefit from these Boulder-area companies, this unique ecosystem of tinkerers, leading manufacturing techniques, and suppliers create a vivid community that amplifies innovation in the Boulder area and already has attracted a series of successful robotics start-ups: For example, Modrobotics, a CMU spin-off, makes transformative robotic construction kits that could be the next “Lego”. Orbotix co-founded by a duo of young engineers from CSU and UNC that became part of the Boulder TechStars 2010 class and subsequently raised over $6m of venture money for their new gaming robot, Sphero. OccamRobotics, founded by a serial entrepreneur who came to Boulder from the bay area, is working on low-cost, autonomous pallet trucks that build up on recent breakthroughs in robotic algorithms, availability of open-source tools, and novel sensors.
Each these companies have in common that their founders identified Boulder as the place that will make them most successful – often moving here from other hot-spots for high-tech entrepreneurship and engineering. These start-ups are complemented by mechatronic giants such as Ball Aerospace, close-by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin; small and medium-sized companies that develop robotic equipment for satellites and defense organizations; by a myriad of self-financed tinkerers that develop everything from robotic insects to robotic wheel-chairs in their living rooms and next-generation agriculture systems at Boulder’s Hacker-space Solid State Depot; and of course, the University of Colorado of which many engineering programs are among the top of the nation and the world, and which has a strong research program in unmanned aerial systems.
My lab is working on our agriculture system’s most pressing challenges, robots that can assemble large-scale telescope dishes in space to see into remote galaxies, understanding how intelligence can emerge from large-scale distributed, individually simple components, and constructing robotic facades that help save us power. These efforts are complemented by hands-on classes such as Robotics, Advanced Robotics, Things that Think, or Real-time embedded systems, and others, to shape a new generation of engineers who think of computers as devices that cannot only compute, but sense and literally change the world.
Why now? Robotics has been an industry since the 1960′s when George Devol’s Unimate was sold to manipulate steel plates in a GM plant. Indeed, robots have revolutionized manufacturing, but still have not delivered on early claims of the field. Robot stunts delivered by the Unimate on the 1961 “Tonight” show, still remain a major challenge for artificial intelligence 50 years later: opening a can of beer, pouring it, or directing an orchestra. These commercially successful robots, which led to the raise of Japan to a major industrial power in the 1980′s, were not autonomous, but simply execute pre-calculated paths. This trend is finally changing right now, documented by companies such as iRobot, Husqvarna and KIVA systems who successfully market autonomous robotic products, and is mainly driven by exponential developments in computing (“Moore’s Law”), cell phones and cars – both industries who integrate computing and sensors at high density.
“Boulder is for Robots” is not only an observation, but also an imperative to bring entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and capital together to bring the next big robotic idea to life in Boulder by exchanging know-how, man-power, and tools, and combining them into great new products. In case you already knew that “Boulder is for Robots”, please comment on this post and share what you do!
My little buddy, the robotic ball controlled by your smartphone named Sphero, has shipped and you can order a Sphero now! Having watched Sphero come to life over the past 17 months, starting as a seed of an idea in the heads of two mad geniuses (Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson) has been awesome.
I remember seeing Ian and Adam’s video application to TechStars for the Boulder 2010 program (at the time the company was called Gearbox). There were a lot of questions on the selection committee because it wasn’t a typical software thing. “These guys are hardware hackers – will we have good mentors for them?” was one of the questions asked. “Fuck yeah” I said. “I’ll be one of their lead mentors. I love robots.”
In my first mentor meeting with Ian and Adam, they showed me three ideas. One was an iPhone controlled door lock. One was something else that was iPhone controlled but was so stupid I can’t remember what it was. One was a ball that you could control with your smartphone. As they described idea #1, they told me about the mentors who had said “this could be a good business.” As they described idea #2, I started thinking to myself “where is the passion in these guys that I saw in the video?” When they got to the ball, I remember Adam (or was it Ian) saying something like “our third idea is a remote control ball – how cool is that?” We talked about it for a minute or two and with each passing second they became more animated. Adam literally stood up and was gesturing around as he tried to show me what it would be like to use it.
I 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 “Fuck that – do what you love.”
Paul Berberian, one of their mentors during TechStars, shared the same enthusiasm. About halfway through the program Ian, Adam, and Paul started to talk about teaming up – by the end of TechStars Paul had joined as the CEO. I’ve worked with Paul since he co-founded Raindance Communications in 1997 and was delighted to quickly lead a seed financing for Orbotix.
17 months later we have the world’s first robotic ball controlled by a smartphone. The early reviews are starting to come in and they are all in the “wow this is cool I wish there were more apps” category.
TechCrunch on Sphero: “As a technological artifact, the ball is incredible. When’s the last time you’ve seen a small, self-propelled ball with built-in gyroscope, accelerometer, Bluetooth radio, and compass? You could put a little explosive in these and they could be a Bond villain.”
CNET on Sphero: “In the end, it’s Sphero’s shape that may be both its strength and its weakness, for it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a ball–and it’s not terribly exciting to see a ball roll around on its own after a while, even one that’s interactive and lights up. Of course, it’s something of a technological feat to remotely put a ball in motion, and kudos to Orbotix for doing that and coming up with an app tie-in strategy that should help keep things interesting moving forward. All that’s pretty clever. Or maybe it’s stupid. It is such a fine line.”
Engaget on Sphero: “That said, Sphero is a great toy to have if you’ve got any furry friends — this reporter spent a good thirty minutes making Sphero chase a friend’s dog, and it seems the pup had even more fun with it than his human friends. We should also note Sphero’s worth as a conversation starter, as most folks haven’t seen anything like it, and are keen to take it for a spin.”
I have two dogs and they love the Sphero. So far I haven’t gotten remotely bored playing around with them with it. I’ve played a few of the upcoming Sphero apps, including a Mixed Reality Pong game, using Sphero to control your phone (3D joystick like behavior), movement tracking, and Wii like games where the ball replaces the Wii mote. The potential of apps built to incorporate a Sphero just blows my mind.
In addition to shipping Sphero, Orbotix also released their SDK and the first five Sphero apps. The short term goal is to make it easy for anyone to develop apps for Sphero since – even though the Orbotix team is crazy smart and creative, we know that the breakthrough apps will come from other people.
I love the stuff I invest in. It’s magical to me that the idea Ian and Adam had 17 months ago is now a product with a full fledged software ecosystem around it. Orbotix is a long way from being a successful company, but shipping Sphero is a huge step in their journey.
If you love robots, want to hack on a robotic ball, have a cat, have a kid, or just want to play around with an amazing new toy at its very early stages, order your Sphero today. Yes, there’s a backlog so you won’t get it in time for Christmas, but hopefully they’ll be fully caught up by January.