Making robots that make learning fun
Adam Wilson turned a lifelong obsession with robots into Sphero, a game-changing robotics company that’s shaping the way kids play, learn, and engage with STEM.
Adam Wilson is living proof that doing what you love pays off. The self-proclaimed nerd has always been a maker—he grew up tinkering with VCR parts and vying for first place in coding competitions. It wasn’t until he saw the movie Short Circuit, though, that it all came together for him. “Seeing a robot come alive and become everyone’s best friend—I realized that was my destiny. I’m supposed to make robots,” Adam says.
While finishing up dual degrees in physics and mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado, he met his co-founder, Ian Bernstein. The two of them were both passionate about robotics. “When we first started, we had a lot of options. We had the technology, but we didn’t know what product we were going to make,” Adam says. After an investor pressed them to decide, they thought about what kind of conventions they’d eventually like to attend and what they wanted to spend their days thinking about. Did they really want to make garage door openers? The answer was no, so they decided to focus on having fun and making toy robots—for everyone.
Inclusivity and female representation within the tech world has always been important to Adam. It started when he was a kid. “I didn’t like that most of my female friends growing up weren’t into what I was into. They weren’t as outgoing about it because their love of computers and coding wasn’t as easily accepted as mine was,” Adam says. So when he and Ian started the design process, it was imperative to create a toy that everyone would want—and be able—to play with. “When you look at robots, a lot of them look like they’re made for boys. That’s why we came up with the ball—it’s a shape that’s so universal, no one is left out,” says Adam. The round shape would prove to be challenging to execute, but for Adam, the inclusivity of the product design was just as crucial as the inclusivity of his staff, which includes a large number of female coders, programmers, and engineers.
In 2010, Adam and Ian pushed even further into making a product that would be accessible and lovable by everyone by going through TechStars, a seed incubator that doesn’t just provide startups with the funding they need, but also mentorship. Four years later, they signed up for another program, this time an accelerator with one of the world’s largest entertainment and media companies. “Everyone loves when we turn these robots into little characters with personality. We realized that there was no one better to teach us about character design and bringing things to life [than this company],” says Adam. As part of the program, Adam and Ian got to meet with the company’s CEO. After he showed interest in what they were doing, Adam and Ian stayed up all night building a functional model of one of the company’s most iconic characters: a robot. For their efforts, they landed the opportunity to bring the company’s characters to life as toys, transforming Sphero overnight.
That wouldn’t be the only transformation Sphero would undergo. After developing a way to program robots to dance, Adam wanted to see if kids would find programing robots as much fun as he and his team did. So, they went into a school after hours and taught a class full of fourth graders. “The teacher was amazed. She couldn’t believe these kids all cared about angles and time now. They just loved it,” Adam says. At the end of the afternoon, the kids wanted to know when the next class would be. The only problem was that there were no plans for another class. Yet.
Since that first after-school program, Sphero has expanded its educational component, making sure kids are learning—and having fun while doing it. “Today, there are over 400,000 Spheros in schools. We hear from kids that it’s their best day at school,” says Adam.
“Sphero is a kid’s best day at school.”
- Adam Wilson
“We see kids who have no interest in math or science get excited about learning. Maybe they won’t end up becoming engineers or programmers, but the knowledge builds their confidence,” Adam says. But the robots aren’t just being used to teach math and programing; teachers have helped create lessons to teach things like Paul Revere’s midnight ride in history class, too.
Adam and Ian heard “no” a lot when they first started pitching their idea of Sphero to investors, but they stuck with it because they believed in what they were doing. “My advice to someone who is just starting out is: believe in your heart. A lot of people hide what they’re doing and wait for it to be perfect, but if you believe in something, put it out there and see what happens.”