By Stephen Ellison, Contributing Writer
With the Walt Disney Co. about to launch the second round of its Disney Accelerator program for startups, Innovation Leader caught up with Michael Abrams, Senior Vice President of Innovation. Abrams shared the thinking behind the accelerator program, what the company looks for in applicants, and how new connections with early-stage tech companies may help Disney accelerate its own businesses, which include ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm.
Abrams has been with Disney for about 18 months and reports to Kevin Mayer, executive vice president of Corporate Strategy and Business Development. Abrams previously worked at Live Nation, where he helped that company launch its mobile efforts.
The Disney Accelerator, run in partnership with Techstars, debuted last year, with 10 startups participating. The second round launches July 6, and the startups chosen to participate this year will be announced then. Startups get access to $120,000 in funding from Disney and Techstars.
Innovation Leader: How was the accelerator idea born?
Abrams: The accelerator idea was born before I got here. The innovation team had worked with Kevin Mayer and [Disney chairman and CEO] Bob Iger on ways to better connect Disney with early-stage companies and plug into the startup ecosystem, in order to really kind of infuse the DNA of startups more…into the Walt Disney Co.
Innovation Leader: How has the accelerator idea evolved since the first one?
Abrams: The first one went incredibly well, and we found a lot of intersections between the startups and the Disney business segments. And we decided to continue doing it and working more closely with startups. We’re looking forward to doing it again this year.
…Unfortunately, we’re talking right before we’re going to announce the participants in the next program, and I can’t really share anything about them yet.
Innovation Leader: What are the benefits of the accelerator from Disney’s perspective? What’s the ideal end-game?
Abrams: The larger Disney gets, the more important it is for us to connect with the evolution of technology and … recently we’ve seen that a lot of technology innovation is happening in the startup community. Perhaps many years ago, it was really the exclusive domain of large corporate labs, and now, of course, while a lot of innovation still occurs inside large companies, like Disney, there is a tremendous amount of excitement and new technology being developed in…the startup community.
For Disney, it’s an opportunity to bring the creativity we bring to movies and television and theme parks and games and all of our businesses – and really apply that energy to startups and entrepreneurs, working with them as partners … to literally accelerate their businesses – and ours.
Innovation Leader: What’s the process for choosing the next set of accelerator participants?
Abrams: We opened up applications in February, and we invite startups from all around the world to apply to the program. They fill out a simple application and provide us some information about who they are and why they’re interested in working with Disney and being part of the accelerator. The team from Walt Disney Co. and partner Techstars work through the applications – we spend a lot of time with many of the prospective participants, getting to know them, and we evaluate them on the strength of the team primarily, followed by the market they’re targeting and the approach they’re taking, and finally by the product they’re working on. And the reason it’s in that order – which might seem a little backwards, focusing on the team first – is, having been an entrepreneur myself … you learn that the product you have in mind really often changes when it reaches the marketplace, when you begin to take customer feedback. So we look for the kind of folks who are going to get into the market, learn from it, deal with the excitement, deal with the disappointment, learn quickly and execute – and change, rather than just focus on what they think the right answer is. Because the market will tell you.
Innovation Leader: It’s all technology-based, right? What areas does the accelerator encompass?
Abrams: We do focus on technology-enabled media and entertainment startups. It’s not restricted to media in the context of broadcast or TV or streaming; we really think about media and entertainment at large. If you think about the Walt Disney Co. and all the different businesses we’re in, we are focused on bringing joy to our audience and joy to our guests, and the spectrum of products and services that we think about for the accelerator ranges from, of course, media and new media businesses, all the way through robotics, applications, mobile technology, new and interesting ways to work with kids and adults and really ways to extend the entertainment experience across the world and into the future.
Innovation Leader: Did last year’s event spawn any partnerships or new businesses with the participating startups?
Abrams: It has indeed. In fact, two weeks ago, [Executive Producer] Kathy Kennedy at the Star Wars Celebration announced that we’ll be working with Sphero, which was one of the companies in the 2014 accelerator, to bring the BB-8 droid to consumers later this year, along with the release of the new “Star Wars” movie. … Another example is Naritiv (pictured at right), which worked with ABC Family to bring “Pretty Little Liars” to Snapchat, and I believe that account has more than a million followers … crazy successful.
Innovation Leader: How does Disney connect its employees with the accelerator, and how do they benefit?
Abrams: So with the Disney Accelerator program, one of the key elements of it is mentorships and our employees and executives – Bob Iger and the leaders of all the business units and many employees around the company – spend one-on-one time with the startups during the program. We’ve actually located the accelerator right across the street from one of our other buildings at our creative campus [in Glendale, California.] It creates a real opportunity for people to spend time with the startups informally and learn and teach. [Disney CEO Bob Iger served as a mentor to Sphero.]
Innovation Leader: Do you see the accelerator becoming an annual thing?
Abrams: We really haven’t made that decision. [Last year] was really great, and we’re hoping 2015 will be just as great.
Here’s Disney’s post recapping the first cycle of the Disney Accelerator in 2014. Mashable’s coverage includes short video pitches from the startups, and here’s coverage from The Hollywood Reporter. CNBC also interviewed Disney CEO Bob Iger about the program in October 2014.