HE’S not just the biggest star from The Force Awakens — BB-8 has rocketed one small company to a galaxy far, far away.

Christmas shoppers would no doubt have seen the toy version of the adorable soccer ball-shaped droid on shelves in every electronics store around the country. At $249, he’s not cheap, but BB-8 is proving to be one of this year’s must-have items.

Sphero, the little-known robotics company that manufactures the toy, has seen its fortunes go into hyperdrive thanks largely to a chance encounter with Disney chief executive Bog Iger last summer.

The Boulder, Colorado-based company, which has been making ball-shaped, internet-connected toys since 2011, had entered Disney’s Accelerator program, which helps small companies grow their business by tapping into the creative library of Disney properties.

Sphero’s two founders, Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson, and CEO Paul Berberian, met Mr Iger on the second day of the program. The Disney boss immediately saw an opportunity.

“He opens up his iPhone, and he starts showing dailies [from The Force Awakens] and watermarked photos that nobody has seen other than the people directly involved with the movie,” Mr Berberian told Wired.

Iger pointed to BB-8 and asked if Sphero could make it. “He said, ‘that’s the new droid, the new R2D2, and it looks a lot like what you are making’,” Berberian told the Financial Times. “In the course of 60 seconds, you process that this could be huge. We even knew how to do the head, we already had the technology.”

They acquired the license in November 2014, and in 10 months had a product ready to ship, just in time for the Force Friday toy sales event.

“If you gave me a billion dollars to sell as many Spheros as possible, I’d create a sci-fi movie that had a main character as a robot ball,” Mr Berberian told the FT.

Bloomberg reports that when the company released the toy version of BB-8 on September 4, it sold 22,000 units in just 12 hours. Sphero’s September sales alone pulled in nearly 90 per cent of the company’s usual annual haul.

“We already were changing the way people interacted with robots,” Mr Wilson told Bloomberg. “This changed the way the world saw robots. It really did change everything. We could never have seen this coming like that.”

The company had already sold more than half a million Sphero toys since 2011 and attracted $62 million in venture capital, but the Disney partnership has supercharged its growth. Sphero has already doubled its headcount to more than 100 since work on BB-8 began and plans to double staff again in the coming year.

It hasn’t released sales figures, but Mr Berberian said sales were on track to be more than five times its original revenue targets for the year, and that in terms of overall sales value, it was “selling better than any other [Star Wars] product out there”.

Now that the film is out, the team can begin rolling out software updates to the toy to unlock new functions, such as “holographic” messages and new content for the app.

“We can change the firmware, let’s say we figure out a better algorithm for driving,” Mr Berberian told Fortune. “Or maybe in the movie there’s a part where he spins his head around 20 times. I don’t know. But we can add that. This is just the beginning.”




By Adam