[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap]AN BERSTEIN, who grew up in rural New Mexico, has always been a tinkerer and a problem solver. As far back as he can remember he was taking apart cameras, cassette players, and other electronics to create new inventions. In elementary school, Ian began homeschooling and started to learn more about electronics from one of his father’s students. At the age of 12 he attended the BEAM International Robotics Games and his lifelong passion in the field of robotics was sparked. Under the mentorship of Mark Tilden, a notable robotics physicist and founder of the BEAM Games, Ian spent his teen years building robots not only as a hobby, but also for university research students, for international robotics competitions, and even the Space Center Houston Science Center just to name a few. In line with his passion, Ian studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at New Mexico Tech and Colorado State University. His senior year, Ian he dropped out to learn about business by starting a web development company.
Over the next four years he did web development while maintaining a part-time job at RoadNarrows Robotics doing research and design to keep his engineering skills fresh. One night in late 2009 while playing with his iPhone, Ian wondered why he couldn’t use this amazing computing device he was holding in his hand to control the robots he was working on. Armed with this thought and hungry to do something big, Ian started a new company called GearBox, later renamed to Orbotix, with the mission to create the next generation in gaming devices – specifically, interactive smartphone controlled gaming robots. In the summer of 2010 with the backing of TechStars, a seed accelerator/investment program, Ian and his co-founder Adam Wilson created their first product, Sphero, an app-enabled robotic ball.Today Ian spends his time at Orbotix working on Sphero and other new robots that will soon revolutionize the gaming industry.
1) How did you come up with idea of Sphero? It started back in 2009 when I was working at a robotics company called RoadNarrows Robotics. We were selling robots to research labs and universities and one night I was looking at some of the products we were selling while I was playing with my iPhone. These products were linux-based controller boards that were used in the robots we sold and had accessories like touch screens. The thing was that these controllers with accessories could easily cost into the thousands of dollars and they weren’t even close to the quality of technology that was in smartphones. I asked myself, “wouldn’t it be cool if I could use a smartphone as the brain for the robots instead?” After some research I quickly realized that not only was no one controlling robots with a smartphone but no one was controlling anything interesting with a smartphone and the market could actually be huge for something like this.
I ended up meeting my co-founder, Adam Wilson, through a mutual friend and with a small loan from my dad we purchased an Android device, built a custom Bluetooth enabled dev board, and got to work creating demos. The first demos were more obvious things like controlling lights, a remote starter in my car, my garage, and a toy tank. This was enough to get us into the Summer 2010 Techstars Boulder program though and it was in the first couple days of the program that we came up with the idea for Sphero. A fun gaming robot or hotel door locks – the direction we wanted to take the company was pretty obvious for us.