BURBANK, CA -- If you want to understand how a big media company thinks about innovating for the future, spend a day inside its startup incubator. If you want to understand how one thinks about imagineering for it, spend it inside Disney’s. That’s what I did recently when I sat in on the demo day for year two of Walt Disney’s accelerator program and what I saw seemed inspired by childhood imagination, except they were engineered and they were real, including a technology enabling viewers to change TV channels by using their brain waves, and a prosthetic arm for child amputees that is the spitting image of Marvel’s Iron Man, although I don’t think the version demoed could emit a repulsor ray -- at least not yet.
The reason isn’t just about bringing childhood fantasies to life, Disney COO Tom Staggs said during the presentation at Disney headquarters here, it is about bringing “fresh thinking” into a media company whose lifeblood depends on it.
Disney isn’t alone. Almost every major media company now sponsors some form of incubator program, including studio-based companies like Warner Bros./Turner Broadcasting’s Media Camp.
Recently, Disney Accelerator companies selected ten mostly consumer-facing companies, which gave brief, six-minute presentations during the “demo day” event. They included everything from a company selling young girls the tools to make their own dolls to a new immersive sports statistics platform, to a personalized artificial intelligence messaging company where TV and movie characters can have discussions with consumers.
Speaking at the event, Kevin Mayer, senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Walt Disney, said this year’s group of companies selected come as either Disney investors or as partners of Disney businesses.
“Every single company has a tie-in with Disney,” said Mayer. “The exchange of ideas is what powers Accelerator.”
For example, MakieLab -- which produces those custom dolls -- struck a deal with Disney (which is also in the consumer product business for its TV shows and films) for products based on Mickey Mouse, Pixar, Marvel and Disney “Frozen” characters.
Littlstar is another Disney Accelerator company that many might be more familiar with -- as a digital video distributor/producer entrepreneur. But Littlstar focuses on a particular area: distribution and producing virtual reality video.
Virtual reality video is a growing market. Company officials estimated that VR headset sales will grow to 25 million by 2020.
Right now virtual video is a slow-moving business, with 45% of the money invested in virtual reality going toward manufacturing headsets and 53% of investments into content creation. But Ben Nunez, CEO of Littlstar, said just 2% goes into content distribution.
“It’s a new form of storytelling,” he said. “We know where the opportunity is in VR.” Littlstar already has deals with Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, and Disney.com.
Another Disney Accelerator company -- called imperson -- looks to change the way that consumers engage with digital messaging, believing new branded messaging platforms will grow where consumers can have a messaging discussions with movie and TV characters.
The market is huge, said Erez Baum, CEO of imperson, with 2 billion active messaging users -- and with Millennials spending up to three hours a day messaging. Using artificial intelligence, Baum said, the company can attach a “character” who will respond to consumers with personalized messages.
The company already has a deal with Disney “Muppets” character “Miss Piggy.” And it is working well, he said: “This what happens when you talk with your audience instead of shouting at them.”
Perhaps one of the most daring efforts at Disney Accelerator comes from Emotiv, which works on “wearable technology for the brain.” Emotiv has started up a new sleek headband-like product called “Insight” that can enable someone to move objects, change TV channels, create music or other activities simply by using their brain waves.
“The ultimate remote control,” said Tan Le, CEO of Emotiv. Harvard, MIT and NASA are some of its clients. The company has also worked with Disney TV network ABC to measure viewer emotions in real time.
Right now, Insight “is the first consumer wearable for tracking the personal brain activity for less than the cost of the Apple Watch,” claimed Le, adding that it can monitor brain health in real-time.
Open Bionics intends to upgrade the world for amputees -- especially those who are young children -- by providing them special low-cost bionic arms and hands. It says it can produce a bionic hand for only 5% of the traditional cost, which typically sells for $100,000.
The company has made a deal with Disney for special movie-looking “super hero” prosthetics -- a Marvel “Iron-Man” hand; a Star Wars’ “Light Saber” hand; and Disney’s “Frozen” Snowflake hand.
What “once was science fiction is now reality. The era of bionics is here,” asserted Joel Gibbard, CEO of Open Bionics.
Other startups in Disney’s effort includes an in-depth interactive sports stats platform called statmuse; and Pundit, a mobile and social company that creates stories using of a user’s voice.
Other Disney Accelerator ventures this year, Decisive, uses “deep learning” to help brands predict how audiences will respond to social images and video; FEM is a platform using neuroscience to power personalized video experiences; and Hyp3R is a location based company engaging consumers on a personal basis in real-time.
Disney’s Accelerator is managed by Techstars, a company for entrepreneurs who are looking for capital, mentorship, marketing, business development, customer acquisition, and talent recruitment. In the accelerator program, companies offer each startup a three-month mentorship and seed money of $120,000.
As part of startup push, many of Disney’s most senior executives have acted as “mentors,” including COO Staggs and Chairman-CEO Bob Iger.
Like all major media companies, new ideas don’t always come from the inside. Initially, many outside young companies come looking to pitch ideas -- or sell services -- to big companies. That’s where these media “demo day” events came from, according to studio executives.
For Disney Accelerator, company executives plan is to keep the relationship “open” -- letting entrepreneurs have wide access to Disney company resources so as to not limit innovation. Disney’s Iger has said he didn’t want entrepreneurs to feel they had to do hard “selling.”
A year ago, at the first Disney Accelerator event, Disney’s Iger told CNBC, "There's a deep DNA that exists here that isn't necessarily bad. But sometimes it's not as expansive as it needs to be, as facile as it needs to be.“The ability to change with the times, and by learning about, by being introduced to new young talent —that's a great thing."