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Disney Showcases Tech Start-Ups in Latest Accelerator Program

Emotiv uses EEG signals to monitor emotions — including what audiences are feeling, in real time, about a movie or TV show.

Open Bionics creates low-cost 3-D printed bionic hands for amputees — including kids who can get “Iron Man,” “Star Wars” and “Frozen”-themed limbs.

Im Person is trying to pioneer “interactive storylines,” using artificial intelligence so fans can message their favorite characters, including Miss Piggy of “The Muppets.”

That was some of the technical wizardry on display on Wednesday as the Walt Disney Co. staged a demo day for its Disney Accelerator program, in which startups are paired with studio employees for a three-month immersive mentorship program.

The goal is for the start-ups to develop media and entertainment products, with the lure of collaboration with Disney on an array of ventures. All of the companies from this year have tie-ins in the works, according to Disney executives.

“The idea was that there are a lot of entrepreneurs out there, many of them are start-up companies which could have a great connection to all of our brands,” said Kevin Mayer, senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Disney. “It infects us with this great energy and some new perspective on things.”

The companies selected after an application process receive $20,000 upon acceptance, and then are offered an option to an additional $100,000 convertible debt note, which converts into equity at a discount to the price of the next funding. IP by a participating company is retained by that company.

“It is great to make money out of our investments, but the strategic benefit of bringing in all these entrepreneurs with all these new ideas and aligning them with our business units and seeing where we can take some of those ideas, that is the real benefit,” Mayer said.

This is the second year of the program, in which Disney is partnered with technology accelerator Techstars. An often-cited success story is that of a 2014 participant, Sphero, above, which last year was paired with Disney CEO Robert Iger as mentor. He saw application for their spherical robotics in the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” with the Sphero technology used for the BB-8 droid and an official toy that went on sale last month.

At their demos, each of the CEOs gave short presentations.

Open Bionics CEO Joel Gibbard said that a problem with bionic hands has been in affordability and, for kids, the stigma as well. The idea of creating bionic hands tailored to Disney properties, he said, is to help make children “proud” to be wearing them. Disney provided a royalty free license for their contribution, such as the “Iron Man” hand and the “Star Wars Light Saber” hand, he said.

With its technology, Im Person CEO Erez Baum said that the company is tapping into the audience of 2 billion active messaging users worldwide. The “Miss Piggy Messaging Experience,” he said, will be featured on her Facebook page.

Tan Le, CEO of Emotiv, said that the company has just started selling wearable headsets that measure such things as stress, as well as applications that react to mental command. She declined to identify other Disney tie-ins than audience research, but at the end of her presentation gave a possible clue. “The force is with us and with Disney’s help we can awaken it,” she said.

Other companies in the program:

Hyper: The company identifies a “social media geo-fence” with an application that allows businesses to engage customers at specific locations. In other words, if a guest at Disneyland is tweeting about an experience, the park’s employees can identify a visitor and then respond directly in real time.

MakieLab: CEO Alice Taylor says that the company combines the two most in-demand types of toys — building and dolls and action figures — into applications that allow kids to build their own 3-D-printed playthings. They are creating toy lines themed to Mickey Mouse, the Muppets and “Frozen,” as well as Disney’s new Star Darlings franchise.

Littlestar: The company is a virtual reality and 360-degree video platform, in what CEO Ben Nunez says will be a huge need for distribution in a space that is growing quickly in hardware (i.e. 3-D goggles) and software (i.e. content). It adapts panoramic content so it can be viewed across devices.

Decisive: The company is set up to help brands gain greater insight into why audiences may prefer a square-screen mobile image, or why they may prefer the color purple on a mobile screen over red. CEO David Dundas says that the research will be ever more essential with the growth of ad-blocking applications.

Pundit: CEO Billy Shaw Susanto and other recent NYU graduates created this application to respond to mobile and social stories and messages via voice. It’ll be used backstage at the CMA Awards on ABC, and by ABC Family at New York Comic Con.

FEM Inc.: The company’s Prizma platform uses neuroscience to create much more relevant and personalized online videos, with use by ABC News and ESPNW. The company’s CEO Rachel Payne says it corrects a persistent problem where video recommendations on many sites often have little to do with the content being played.

Statmuse: The company created a search engine for sports that gathers statistics in a much more sophisticated yet simple way. ESPN will be using its applications for basketball this season, but CEO Eli Dawson sees possibilities crossing over into the market for fantasy sports.

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