Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

For a Clue to Disney’s View of Future, Look at Startups It Aids

  • Accelerator startups range from e-sports to robotics companies
  • These are businesses ‘Disney needs to be in,’ executive says

Atom Tickets lets you pre-order movie tickets and popcorn, splitting the cost with a friend. Ader connects marketers with video-game enthusiasts who’ll talk about their products while playing competitively online. And Pley lets you rent toys from brands like Lego and American Girl for a $13-a-month subscription fee.

Those companies are among nine that participated in Walt Disney Co.’s Accelerator program this year. The three-month mentoring session at Disney’s Burbank, California, headquarters, teams fledgling businesses with managers including Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger.

The program gives Disney a chance to partner with promising startups and investors a window into what the world’s largest entertainment company thinks may be lucrative opportunities. This year’s crop of nine companies -- which present their business plans Thursday to Disney executives, venture capitalists and the media -- shed light on Disney’s interest in e-sports, virtual reality, robotics and “snackable” content for social media.

“We thought about the future of media and entertainment and how we see the world evolving,” said Michael Abrams, the Disney executive who oversees the program. “We focused on areas that we considered important.”

BB-8 Toy

The Disney Accelerator program, now in its third year, has resulted in some successful collaborations. Sphero, a Boulder, Colorado-based robotics company and a 2014 participant, produced last year’s hit toy, a $150 copy of BB-8, the droid from Disney’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” film. In the past, the program featured companies as young as a few months old and some products that seemed a bit of a stretch for Disney, like Open Bionics, which makes artificial limbs for children. This year’s crop focused more on later-stage companies, Abrams said.

Among those presenting at Demo Day 2016:

  • Jaunt Inc. produces video for viewing through virtual-reality goggles. Disney invested in the business last year and has collaborated on productions for its ABC News division. More partnerships are in the works, Abrams said.
  • Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics creates life-like robots that talk and mimic human expressions. It could provide an opportunity for Disney, the world’s largest theme-park operator, as it creates new attractions based on films such as “Star Wars” and “Avatar.”
  • Playbuzz makes digital publishing tools that let marketers and bloggers create a quiz or a poll, for example, and then distributes them to partners who promote them on social media. Its content is among the top draws on Facebook.

“These are businesses that Disney needs to be in,” Abrams said.

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