As anticipation continues to rise for the new Star Wars film to open at the end of this year, a hardware startup central to the making of one of the characters has raised a new round of funding. Sphero, makers of the eponymous spherical robots that you control with your smartphone — as well as the new BB-8 droid in Star Wars: The Force Awakens — has raised $45 million in a new round of funding.
The investment was led by Mercato Partners, with Disney and Foundry Group also participating. As part of the funding, Mercato’s co-founder and MD Greg Warnock is joining Sphero’s board.
The funding was first flagged through a Form D filed with the SEC that noted Sphero might actually raise up to $52 million. We understand there is at least one other very large, strategic tech investor involved that is not being named.
The funding will be used for product research and IP development and to further global expansion, the company says.
Prior to today, the Boulder, Colorado-based company, co-founded in 2010 by Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson, had raised around $35 million with other investors including Techstars, Grishin Robotics, Highway 12 Ventures, Shea Ventures, SK Ventures and individual investors. Additionally, Sphero had been through both Techstars and the Disney accelerators, with the latter investing $120,000 in the company as part of that program.
Paul Berberian, the CEO of Sphero, says that the company hadn’t been planning to raise money this year — it raised $20 million only a year ago — but said that the Star Wars deal definitely raised interest in the company.
“The momentum from the Disney deal made us think, hey, maybe this is an opportunity to go out and raise more,” he said in an interview today.
Sphero is also seeing a lot of strong momentum beyond the BB-8, too. The company does not disclose sales numbers of the its flagship Sphero and newer product, Ollie, but Berberian said that there have been hundreds of thousands of units sold of these, approaching 1 million by the end of this year.
Beyond being a fun connected toy that you can control with an app, Sphero brings together some interesting technology — “we had a lot of technology and IP in our ball that helped bring BB-8 to life,” Berberian said. And the products also play into the bigger push to get younger people interested in computer science, with thousands of Spheros being using today in coding classes.
“The Star Wars part of the story absolutely helps our funding, but if that was all we were about we wouldn’t have been able to raise,” he said. “We have a huge wind on our back and we are trying to help transform the world of play and the toy industry. You can’t make a company off one successful product, but you can use it to take a company to a much higher level than before. Instead of hundreds of thousands of products, we can potentially sell millions. The company moves into a new category.”
Still, it was the BB-8 that stole the show at the big Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim in April:
Going forward, Berberian would not comment on any specific further plans with Disney or internationally but this trajectory is clearly what interested Mercato.
“The connected play toy market has grown dramatically over the last several years and analysts expect that growth to continue. The opportunity to partner with a technology and market leader like Sphero was a perfect fit for Mercato,” said Warnock in a statement. “The Sphero team are experienced technologists and the company is well positioned to become the connected play leader of the toy industry.”
Mercato also invests in brands like Skull Candy and will also provide support for Sphero’s sales and retail development.