Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Disney's 2017 Small-Company Bets Include Esports, Robots, Games

  • Entertainment giant backs 11 startups with funding and advice
  • Some, like Atom Tickets and Sphero, have turned into suppliers

Walt Disney Co. announced the members of its small-company mentoring program for 2017, a lineup heavy on video games, robots and online learning.

The 11 participants in the program will receive coaching by executives at the entertainment giant’s Burbank, California, headquarters, according to a company statement Tuesday. Disney holds a stake in each, and past winners have gotten the opportunity to do business with the company as well.

Participants this year include, aXiomatic, whose Team Liquid sponsors players competing in video-game tournaments; Epic Games Inc., which has produced titles such as Unreal and Gears of War; and Brit + Co, which creates online classes in hobbies like photography and knitting.

While many companies run venture-capital funds and invest in startups, Disney’s three-year-old program has fairly quickly delivered products for the company. Sphero, an early participant, created a robot based on Disney’s BB-8 character that was the No. 1 “Star Wars” toy of 2015. Atom Tickets LLC, another participant, has developed a popular app for buying movie tickets and sold exclusive “Rogue One” merchandise in theaters last year.

Another company chosen this year is Savioke, which makes robots that, for example, can deliver extra towels to guests in hotels. Disney, through its theme-park division, maintains thousands of hotel rooms around the world.

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