Disney CEO Bob Iger's big bet on start-ups

The Disney Co. turns 91 on Thursday, but CEO Bob Iger is investing in start-ups to help the old media giant keep up with the fast-changing world of new media.

In Disney's first-ever "accelerator" program, 10 start-ups got up to $120,000 each from the company, along with mentorship from dozens of Disney executives, entrepreneurs and investors. At a "Demo Day" on Tuesday, Iger and other Disney execs got to learn from entrepreneurs about cutting-edge technologies.

"The more touch points we can create with the new world order, with changes that are occurring in our market every day, that will have profound effects on our business long term—the better off we are," Iger said.

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The larger Disney grows, the more important it is to be involved in start-ups, he added.

Disney Store
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"When you run a big successful, somewhat traditional company, there's a way of thinking that comes with that," Iger said. "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 with a completely young talent—that's a great thing."

Iger and his team hand-selected the companies, which by the end of the 15-week program had each struck a different deal with one of Disney's divisions.

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Among the start-ups is Twigtale, a publisher of custom children's books, which made a deal to integrate Disney characters into its products.

The robotic toy company Sphero, which Iger himself mentored, announced it is partnering with Disney on a "Star Wars"-themed toy. (Details weren't revealed.)

Beyond the corporate partnership, Sphero CEO Paul Berberian said he values Iger's advice to think big.

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"As start-ups you can sometimes get hyperfocused on a particular niche and a particular customer who wants you to develop something custom for them," he said.

Iger's advice, Berberian added, was to "step back, look at the big picture: 'Where are you taking this company?'"

Iger says while he expects the partnerships to be beneficial for the start-ups and for Disney, he didn't mandate that his executives strike deals, nor did he want to require that Disney buy any of the companies.

"We didn't want the obligation to skew the relationship in any way. We wanted them to feel free to take advantage of the vast resources of this company, the people, and otherwise, without the sense that they had to sell to us," Iger said. "We thought that would be limiting in nature."

There's a creative advantage in being young, nimble and independent, Iger said, which is why he's giving Maker Studios, which Disney acquired in March, such freedom.

He said the deal is going "extremely well" and that the company has brought "a vibrancy and technology, and a different way of thinking" to Disney. And in order to preserve that different way of thinking, he said, he has no intention of forcing Maker Studios to conform to a corporate culture.