Oct 4 2010

A Robotic Ball Controlled By A Smart Phone

This summer I made two new friends who completely blew my mind – Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson. I met them through TechStars – they were founders of Orbotix, one of the 11 teams to go through this TechStars Boulder this summer. Today, Foundry Group announced that it has led an investment in Orbotix.

I’m always on the lookout for what I consider to be genius level software engineering talent. As an MIT graduate, I’ve been around plenty of it, but I also know that it shows up in unexpected places. A few weeks into TechStars, I realized that not only was I hanging out with genius level software talent but that Ian and Adam thought about hardware and the combination of hardware and software in unique ways. For example, take a look at a robotic ball controlled by a smart phone.

As part of my involvement in TechStars, I choose one or two companies from each program to mentor. We believe the magic of TechStars is the mentorship and while I tried to work with all the companies in the first two Boulder programs, given that there are now over 40 companies a year going through TechStars (10 each in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, and New York), I realized I needed to act like every other mentor and focus at most on two companies per program.

While Foundry Group has investment in two other TechStars companies (both from the TechStars Boulder 2009 program – Next Big Sound and SendGrid) this is the first company that I’ve mentored that we’ve invested in. One of my goals with my mentorship is to work with companies that are both within our themes and outside of our themes – this keeps my thinking fresh in other areas. So, I set the expectation early with the companies that I mentor that it’s unlikely we will invest. For example, the company in the TechStars Seattle program that I’m currently mentoring is absolutely killing it, but it’s far outside any of our themes. But, I’m learning a lot and they are also.

In the case of Orbotix, I knew they’d be within our human computer interaction theme, but when I started working with Adam and Ian, I didn’t realize how profound what they were doing was. Fortunately, by mid-summer I did, and began encouraging one of their other mentors, Paul Berberian, to engage more deeply with them. Paul, Adam, and Ian quickly started talking about teaming up and used the last four weeks of the program to “pretend” they were partners. By the end of the program they decided to join forces with Paul becoming CEO of Orbotix.

While this investment has resulted in endless teenage humor for my inner 14 year old, it is also another step in my personal strategy of making sure that if the robots actually do take over some time in the future, I’ve helped create some of their software.