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These Star Wars Toys Were Made by Entrepreneurs

The Droid Inventor Kit by Disney accelerator startup littleBits goes on sale for Force Friday. Courtesy of Disney

Happy Force Friday, everyone!

The annual mega-launch of new Star Wars merchandize is an exciting day for many. For the wannabe Jedi, today’s toy bonanza is not only an opportunity to stock up on the latest Millennium Falcon sets, but also a way to get a sneak peek into some of the upcoming characters in the next installment of the popular film series. For Disney and its partners—the likes of Hasbro and Lego—the annual shopping event also serves a dual purpose: Generate consumer product sales and buzz for the movie, which premieres Dec. 15. Increasingly, the day also presents an opportunity for toy entrepreneurs to make a name for their startups—especially those that have participated in Disney’s accelerator program.

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The Mouse House launched its startup accelerator, aimed at helping startups advance by giving them access to Disney’s expertise (and making a small investment in them) in 2014. Since then, 29 companies have completed the 12-week-long program, and an additional 11 are currently participating. Some companies go their separate way after they “graduate,” but many spark ongoing relationships with Disney. Some, like STEM toys maker littleBits, even ink licensing deals for Star Wars-branded merchandise.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for a company like ours,” says Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of the New York-based startup, which participated in Disney’s accelerator program last year. “We learned a lot, the way you have to be buttoned up, your manufacturing, your legal, and your internal process. And they were also very open to learn from us. We’re scrappy and we move fast.”

The company’s just-launched product, a droid “inventor kit” that allows kids to create and control their own custom robot, took eight months to develop and is littleBits’ first licensed product with Disney. Being a part of the accelerator program helped in several ways, according to Bdeir. It especially helped that her company was matched with a mentor on the inside: Jimmy Pitaro, the head of Disney’s consumer products division. Pitaro was able to make all of the right introductions for Bdeir, and advise on the development of the product. Says the entrepreneur: “It was a transformative experience.”

Michael Abrams, SVP of innovation at Disney and the exec tasked with running the company’s startup accelerator, says most participating companies end up working with Disney. Another example: App maker Atom Tickets partnered with Rogue One, A Star Wars Story last year, bringing movie ticketing and exclusive Star Wars-related merchandise deals to smartphones. But perhaps the most celebrated startup that has gone through the Disney accelerator is Sphero, maker of the adorable, free-rolling BB-8 droid, which premiered during the first Force Friday in 2015. The Boulder-based company was one of the startups in Disney’s inaugural accelerator class, back in 2014, and is now introducing new products for Disney’s next big flick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There’s an almost exact (and functional!) replica of the beloved R2-D2 robot, plus a new character named BB-9E, which appears to be a droid that has gone over to the Dark Side.

“We’ve learned quite a bit from Disney about character development,” Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero, says of the media company’s accelerator program. “It’s a bit like doing four years of business development in 12 weeks.”

Berberian says he has met with many top execs as a result of his company’s participation. In fact, Sphero’s internal mentor was none other than Disney CEO Bob Iger, who recognized the potential for the startup’s technology early on. “We happened to have a robot ball, and they happened to have an upcoming robot ball character [the original, spherical BB-8 droid],” recalls Berberian.

Disney says it does not give its accelerator grads any preferential contract terms, but that there are many benefits. “They [the startups] don’t have an advantage as it relates to business terms, but the Disney Accelerator has made it a lot easier for both sides to develop relationships and work together,” says Paul Southern, SVP of licensing for Disney’s Lucasfilm unit.

Disney doesn’t disclose any of the terms in their licensing deals, but it’s possible that those terms may actually be less favorable to startups because small companies like littleBits and Sphero lack the scale and leverage of a Hasbro or a Lego.

Still, startups like Sphero and littleBits say the 12-week-program and the ensuing relationship with Disney has been indispensable. The current crop of startups in Disney’s accelerator includes a robotics startup that makes “indoor delivery robots.” So what’s in store for Force Friday 2018, a butler droid? Hopefully one that hasn’t gone to the Dark Side.

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