June 04, 2015      

Sphero, whose technology was glimpsed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailers, has raised $45 million in its latest round of funding.

Star Wars fans were generally pleased with the practical visual effects in the first teasers for “Episode VII,” unlike the heavy reliance on computer-generated imagery in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy and many other recent action films. Some were skeptical about whether BB-8, a spherical droid briefly shown in trailers, was a physical prop.

During a promotional event in April, the cute robot rolled out onstage, leading to speculation online about how it works. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy and The Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger later named Sphero as a contributor, adding to interest in the company, which makes other rolling toys such as “Ollie.” Disney now owns Lucasfilm.

Sphero’s rolling robot uses an open-source operating system based on smartphone software, and it can be controlled with an app. The so-called maker community helped develop machine vision for Sphero, which is waterproof, can move at 4.5 mph, and has a 30m range. The company also offers the device for educational purposes.

Boulder, Colo.-based Sphero had participated in the Techstars accelerator program, as well as Disney’s accelerator. Sphero was previously known as GearBox and Orbotix, and Foundry Group was among the early investors.

The Star Wars connection helped the company raise money earlier than expected, said Sphero CEO Paul Berberian. “The momentum from the Disney deal made us think, ‘Hey, maybe this is an opportunity to go out and raise more,'” he said.

Sphero’s funding is part of a technology and venture capital boom in Colorado, where 86 deals averaging $5 million each have raised a total of $793.1 million, according to The Denver Post and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mercato Partners was a leading investor in the latest round of Sphero’s funding and will help with sales and retail. “The connected play toy market has grown dramatically over the last several years, and analysts expect that growth to continue,” said Greg Warnock, managing director of Mercato Partners.

Sphero’s total valuation is now $80 million, and it plans to spend some of that money on expanding its staff from 72 to about 86 employees. It has hired 15 people since March.

It’s only a matter of time before officially licensed BB-8 toys appear in stores. The Force Awakens will be in theaters in December.