Sophisticated personal social robots for the home look like big business, and investors clearly want in.
That’s the message today with the announcement that Jibo Inc. — whose small, table-top Jibo robot can serve as a personal secretary, an educational assistant, a social media director, and more — has closed a $25.3 million Series A round of funding. The round was led by RRE Ventures, and joined by Charles River Ventures, Fairhaven, Osage University Partners, Flybridge Capital Partners, Two Sigma Ventures, Formation 8, Samsung Ventures, and additional angel investors.
Jibo was the brainchild of Cynthia Breazeal, the director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, and the creator of the Kismet robot. With the funding news, Jibo also announced that Breazeal is transitioning from company CEO to its chief scientist. Steve Chambers, a speech-recognition expert who spent years with Nuance Communications — including as its president — and who has been serving as Jibo’s executive chairman, is taking over as the company’s CEO.
There have been other attempts at personal robots, like Softbank’s Pepper. But the Jibo seems to have raised the bar by adopting a friendly, almost whimsical attitude, a rather cute countenance, and the ability to interact with people in a wide variety of ways. The question the company faces is whether there’s enough interest in a robot that will cost $600. Judging by the fact that the company’s initial Indiegogo campaign generated 2,288 percent of its goal, the odds are in its favor.
One of Jibo’s biggest selling points is its ability to take part in complex video chatting. The robot has a series of built-in touch and audio sensors, and its face rotates toward whomever is speaking to it, making it seem like it’s having a real-life conversation. It can also take photos, and has a reading app — meaning that users can upload books to its library, and the robot will read to you, complete with displays of cartoons on its screen (its face) as well as character-appropriate voices.
“The platform has a unique ability for a user to bond with a Jibo,” said Bruce Sachs, a partner at Charles River Ventures. “Part of that is its ability to sense and show emotion. It’s like a cross between a tablet and a puppy.”
Chambers told VentureBeat that Jibo had originally set out to raise $15 million, but got far more interest than expected. Now, the company is planning on using its new funds to fulfill the 4,800 pre-sale orders its $2.3 million Indiegogo campaign generated, to eventually boost its workforce seven-fold, to fund further research and development, and to contract with third-party manufacturers. Indiegogo backers paid $499 for a standard Jibo, and $599 for a developer version. Once it’s on sale to the general public, the price will be $599.
Currently, Jibo has 15 employees and plans to “more than triple that within” a year, Chambers said.
Jibo expects to start shipping its robots to its “early adopters,” mainly developers, by December or early next January and will begin shipping to everyone else, including its Indiegogo backers, next year.
But Breazeal told VentureBeat that it’s essential that developers get their hands on the first Jibos because they will be the ones making the applications — called “skills” — that will make the robot as interesting and rich as possible. Breazeal said the company plans on building out its developer community over the next few months.
And while no Jibos will ship until late in the year at the earliest, the company plans on releasing a simulator that it will make available to developers by mid-2015.
Sachs said Jibo had originally set up shop in Charles River Ventures’ Cambridge, Mass. offices, and that after he had spent some time looking at the field of personal robotics, he’d come across Breazeal. She “blew me away, and was head and shoulders above anybody else I met in the space,” Sachs said. “She invented the personal robotics space.”
Charles River Ventures was also a seed investor in Jibo, and today, Sachs added, the firm feels that personal robotics is “an area where a big company could get built. It’s a new category, and [Breazeal] was the right person to put a robot in everybody’s home.”