All posts in “Sphero”

Sphero lays off dozens as it shifts focus to education

Sphero was ready to conquer the world last year. The company quintupled its product release schedule, flying high with the help of a Disney licensing deal that gave the world several Star Wars droids and talking Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen robots.

But following a holiday season that failed to live up to expectations, the company recently laid off 45 staff members globally, TechCrunch has learned, a move it says has impacted departments company-wide.

The majority of the layoffs were centered in the company’s Colorado headquarters, but staff cuts also affected its global offices in the U.K. and Hong Kong. 

“We restructured our team on Friday to better align with our product needs,” a spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch. “As we look to our product development schedule for 2018 and beyond, we weren’t going to go that deep, so we had to make some changes for how the teams were structured.”

The move is a step back for the company and a bit of a surprise for those who have been following its trajectory from afar. After participating in Disney’s accelerator back in 2014, the hardware startup got a small investment from the entertainment goliath and began production on a BB-8 toy released alongside 2015’s blockbuster Star Wars return, The Force Awakens.

In 2017 alone, the company released new toys based on R2D2, The Last Jedi‘s BB-9E, Spider-Man and Pixar’s Cars franchise, along with Sphero Mini, a smaller, sub-$50 version of the smartphone controlled ball that started it all. 

The startup had bolstered its headcount to meet the demands of its much accelerated output.

It’s telling, of course, that the layoffs come so soon after the holidays. While not disastrous, the finally tally pointed to the need for a rethink in strategy going forward. “[Sales weren’t] exactly what we had expected,” the spokesperson said. “We still consider ourselves a young startup. It’s the right time to pivot.”

The decrease comes as it shifts toward a product roadmap more in line with the pre-2017 days — putting it at closer to one to two products per year. “That might be our sweet spot,” the spokesperson added. “We’re still pretty young, but the one part of our business that continues to shine is what we’re doing in education. This allows our company to focus on that vision.”

This restructuring finds Sphero investing much more of its existing resources into the education side of its business. The company has been operating in the category for some time, leveraging its hardware creations in an offering designed to target schools, but that side has largely taken a backseat to Sphero’s more commercial offerings until now. 

Educational robotics — STEM/STEAM specifically — is an extremely competitive space, as well. CES last week was overloaded with companies big and small pushing into the category with a variety of different platforms, and from the looks of things, next month’s Toy Fair in New York won’t be much different. 

Sphero Spider-Man

But Sphero has the marked advantage of building on top of its own popular robotics platform. In fact, it ran popular pilot programs in its native Colorado that garnered coverage in places like Wired and The New Yorker last year and in 2016.

The company’s SPRK+ Education offers educators and parents a platform for teaching coding and robotics. Sphero’s package lets kids program its connected toys through coding, offering a real world robotics platform on the cheap.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company’s spokesperson says hopefully. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100-percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

Sphero co-founder and CTO Ian Bernstein also recently left the company to spin out out a new startup, Misty Robotics. It isn’t designed to be a direct competitor, focusing instead on home assistant robotics, but former staffers did join Bernstein at the new company. Misty will also have its own programmable robot, though its offering, the Misty I, is focused primarily on adult developers.

Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics launches a robot for programmers

Recent Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics brought a decidedly non-consumer-focused device to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this week. The Misty I Developer Edition is the first baby step for a startup with even grander ambitions than the one that gave birth to it. In June, the company announced a $11.5 million Series A led by Venrock and Foundry Group to aide in its plans to build a mainstream household robot with a much broader skillset than the industry leading Roomba.

An early attempt at that will arrive later this year, in the form of Misty II, a more highly-polished and commercially-minded version of the company’s robotic’s platform. For now, however, its focus is far more narrow, with plans to court developers, as it works to build something more suitable for the home market.

Misty I Developer Edition is sort of the Apple I to the Misty II’s Apple II. There will likely be a developer version of the II, but the company’s forgoing the consumer version of the I. It’s all understandably a little convoluted a first glance, but the startup’s working on getting its sea legs, as it prepares for the seemingly impossible: a home robot that can do it all. In a briefing in a hotel suite at CES this week, CEO Tim Enwall and Head of Product Ian Bernstein laid out a fairly grandiose roadmap for me.

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It’s a ten-year plan, according to Enwall, and the startup’s investors have apparently agreed to that extremely long runway. After all, someone has to bring robots into the mainstream, right? So why not Misty? Bernstein was the founder and CTO of Sphero, which quickly moved from remote control ball to Disney darling, and Enwall headed up Revolv, which ultimately got sucked up into Google/Nest.

There’s a small army of Misty I’s in the hotel suite when we meet the team. Bernstein puts one on the floor and fires it up. It has the body type of ET: The Extraterrestrial, balanced on four wheels and constructed out a black plastic exoskeleton, that’s maybe a touch more Xenomorph. As Misty (referred to primarily as a “she” by her creators) fires up, a pair of dots inside two brackets simulate some semblance of eyes on what resembles a blue screen of death. 

When fully operational, the eyes are a bit more lifelike, though still early stages. There’s nothing here akin to the animated personality Anki has developed for Cozmo by assembling a team of animators from places like Pixar and Dreamworks. In fact, much about this first Misty model is rudimentary, and that’s kind of the point. The robot fills a similar role as Willow Garage’s bygone Turtlebot or iRobot’s Create, offering developers a way to build ideas on a robotics platform.

It’s a far more limited offering, however. Enwall tells me that it takes his team four to six hours to build a unit, totaling around five to ten units a week. It’s not exactly a sound business model in the long term. Instead, the company will be vetting potential developers through its online platform, and hopefully building up an ecosystem of software ahead of the Misty II’s launch.

Bernstein walks us through some of the quick and dirty features early developers have programmed in at a recent hackathon. In the most compelling demo, Misty I uses her on-board camera and facial recognition to detect people. When she sees them, she zips back on her wheels as if startled. It’s a far cry from the security and smart home connectivity planned for its already announced successor, but it’s a start.

Fittingly, it all feels a bit like watching a baby takes its first tenuous steps. It’s the first public-facing movements of a startup that has a long road of ahead of it — a prospect that’s at once frightening and hopeful.

Black Friday’s best tech bets

Thanksgiving is all about family, friends and gratefulness. The following day, on the other hand, is dedicated to rampant consumerism and generally attempting to not get trampled by a stampede of fellow deal seekers — the reason for the season, as the saying goes.

Writing about tech for a living means our inboxes have been bombarded by Black Friday deals over the past few weeks. Digging through all of the seasonal sales can be every bit as overwhelming as the shopping experience itself, so in honor of making your Thanksgiving weekend slightly less stressful than it has to be, here’s a roundup of some of the best tech deals you’ll find a week from today.

Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics gets $11.5 million to create a mainstream robot for the home

Hardware startup Misty Robotics has a daunting task ahead of it. The Boulder-based company is working on a robot aimed at mainstream consumers for employment in the home and office. But Misty certainly has a solid foundation, as a spinoff of robotic toy maker Sphero, coupled with an $11.5 million Series A led by Venrock and Foundry Group.

The new company employs about half a dozen former Sphero ex-pats, including co-founder Ian Bernstein, who will be Misty’s Head of Product. Bernstein and team have been working on the seeds of Misty’s first product under the Sphero banner for roughly a year and a half, ultimately opting to spin it off into a new company, given its vastly different — and decidedly more ambitious — goals.

“At some point it just made sense for Sphero to focus on connected play,” Bernstein tells TechCrunch. “And it would make sense to spin off a company so we can raise more money and go bigger and faster on this idea of an autonomous robotic being in the home and office.”

Founded as Orbotix in 2010, Sphero has seen rapid growth in the past several years as it’s transformed itself from a niche maker of a smartphone-controlled robotic ball into a full-fledged Disney co-conspirator. The company rocketed to success when its first product became the basis of the remote-controlled BB-8, a wildly successful Star Wars tie-in. Since then, the partnership has  produced new Cars and Spider-Man toys.

But Misty’s offering is something else entirely. The company isn’t ready to reveal much in the way of details at this early stage, except to say that it’s planting the seeds for more mainstream devices. It’s understandable, of course, that it’s fairly modest in its projections. Countless companies have tried to bring consumer robotics to the home, but have largely failed through some combination of half-baked technologies and impossible-to-meet consumer expectations.

For a robot to succeed in the home, it has to be affordable, capable and serve some task that people either can’t or simply don’t want to perform. Only iRobot’s Roomba has come close. The product has found success, but even so, its one-note functionality feels underwhelming compared to the expectations science-fiction has been feeding us for decades. But products like it and Amazon’s Echo are slowly opening the door to more technology in the home. Though Misty tells me it believes a truly mainstream consumer robot is still “several years” away.

“We don’t believe it’s time for a mainstream robot,” says CEO Tim Enwall, who also founded Google-owned home automation company Revolv. “We don’t believe there [is currently] a market for it. What we do believe is that there will be a robot in everyone’s home and office and there is a progression to that process. And that progression, like every other technology we’ve ever adopted as humans, doesn’t start with a mainstream market. It starts with an innovator market.”

Misty’s first several products will be targeted at the hobbyist/maker market — something more akin to where desktop 3D printing and drones have been for the past decade. From there, however, it hopes to build toward something more substantial, both through acceptance among early adopters and a fine-tuning of the multi-purpose robot’s functionality. But, adds Enwall, “even the first-generation of product will embody the principles required for putting a robot in everyone’s home and office. It’s just that this first version will be targeted at innovators.”

The company has released the above promotional image, which highlights an early prototype. At the very least, it appears to point to something more biologically influenced that the Roomba’s hockey puck shape. Whether it takes the form of a humanoid robot, an animal or something else entirely, remains to be seen.

Though Misty’s Sphero experience does point to a company that understands the value of imbuing a product with personality. “We’ve learned a lot,” says Bernstein. “From the progression of starting to add personality in Sphero 2.0, to the Disney deal, [we’ve learned] the power of creating a robot that’s…more of a character.”

Misty’s first product is set to hit the market next year.