A little-known startup got a big shout-out at this week’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, Calif., thanks to Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Iger, whose media empire bought Star Wars creator Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in 2012, kept a low profile at the bi-annual gathering of the space saga's hard-core fans. But he was sitting right in the front row of the massive convention center auditorium where a star-studded panel took place on Thursday morning, the first day of the four-day-long event.
One by one, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams, actors Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill and others took the stage to disclose more details on the next installment of Star Wars, much to the delight of the lightsaber-toting crowd. When an adorable free-rolling robot named BB-8—a new character in the upcoming installment of the series—joined them in the spotlight, it too received a fervent round of applause. The audience went even wilder when Kennedy, who took over for company founder George Lucas in 2012, mentioned that BB-8's graceful (and real-life) maneuverings were at least partly enabled by a small company discovered by none other than Iger.
Kennedy didn't mention the name of the startup on stage, but when asked in an interview with Fortune she revealed that the company is Boulder, Colo.-based Sphero, which bills itself as a "connected play company, fusing digital and physical play by creating toys and robots that you control with a smart device."
It turns out that the startup, headed by CEO Paul Berberian, was selected for Disney's accelerator program last year, along with nine other companies. According to Disney's website, the three-month-long program picks tech startups who want to "make an impact on the world of media and entertainment," giving them upwards of $120,000 in investment capital. It also matches each startup with a mentor from within Disney's executive ranks. Sphero's mentor? You guessed it: Iger. When the tech-savvy CEO saw Sphero's technology in action, he realized the potential application for BB-8 and connected the startup with the masterminds of the Star Wars characters.
Executives at Sphero couldn't be reached for comment, but the company's website describes its signature product as an app-controlled ball that does it all. The same underlying technology, which was licensed to create the version of BB-8 that graced the stage at the Star Wars Celebration (Kennedy calls it the "Red Carpet BB-8"), allows the little bot to glide around on a ball-like structure, literally running circles around R2-D2.
What's interesting is that Sphero also appears to be working with Disney (dis) on a Star Wars-themed toy (who wouldn't want their own, fully-functional BB-8 rolling around their home?) It's also worth noting that while Iger's involvement in the film franchise has often been behind the scenes, he is deeply involved in many ways. At the same time, he's managed to assuage the fears of apprehensive fans—Iger has a good track record when it comes to acquiring companies and letting them be, and so far he has protected Star Wars from any overt "Disneyfication." He also has an admirable history with making bold bets on up-and-coming technologies, across Disney's diverse divisions.
Sphero, of course, is still a relative unknown, and it's not clear what other applications its technology may have within Disney or elsewhere. But after this week, the little company behind the adorable new robot might get a little more attention—and the effusive, laser-focused adulation of the Star Wars masses.