‘Social robot’ startup Jibo attracts new investors, preps for product launch

Still frame from Cynthia Breazeal's 2011 TED Talk about her research on "social robots" at the MIT Media Lab.
Still frame from Cynthia Breazeal's 2011 TED Talk about her research on "social robots" at the MIT Media Lab.

I’ve been following Jibo since last January, when I first told you the “social robot” startup had snagged some initial funding from Charles River Ventures. Now, Jibo founder Cynthia Breazeal has taken a leave from MIT’s Media Lab to run the company. Jibo has brought on some additional investors, and begun hiring a handful of employees from companies like iRobot Corp. and Netflix. And a new placeholder website and Facebook page suggest an unveiling of the product is imminent.

The new site says Jibo is building “the world’s first social robot for the home,” but doesn’t hint about what such a robot would actually do. My best guess, based on talking to people who’ve interacted with Jibo: some sort of healthcare and eldercare applications, or perhaps coordinating the schedules of busy families. Social robots are intended to carry on natural-seeming conversations, display different facial expressions, and sometimes react to changes in a person’s tone of voice or facial expression.

Jibo has raised what Charles River Ventures partner Bruce Sachs describes as “large seed round,” likely in the single-digit millions. New investors include Osage University Partners and Cambridge-based Fairhaven Capital Partners.

John Lee of Osage writes via e-mail that his firm is “excited about the potential of emotional computing, where consumers can have two-way interaction with their devices through natural forms of communication: speaking, eye contact, body language, and intonation. The nature of this interaction opens up significant opportunities in various fields that require deeper insights into a consumer’s emotional state. Given the team’s exceptional backgrounds, they are the right people to deliver on such a vision.”

Sachs says that Jibo’s first product is “not going to be a single-function device” like one of the few social robots we’ve seen make it out of the research lab, Autom, which was designed by one of Breazeal’s former students, Cory Kidd. That robot serves as a countertop weight loss coach. “Cynthia is building a broad-based platform, and really defining a new category. It’s one of those projects that is exciting but also very challenging,” Sachs says.

The company has been hiring employees in both Weston and San Francisco, Breazeal says. She wasn’t ready to say much more about Jibo, beyond confirming that she took a leave-of-absence from MIT last November. LinkedIn shows that Jibo’s co-founder is Jerilyn Asher, who lives in Natick. VP of Engineering Andy Atkins, based in California, previously worked at Netflix. Chief Robot Architect Robert Pack came from Bedford-based iRobot. Two Jibo employees come from the world of gaming: Chief Software Architect Rich Sadowsky hails from Turbine, a Massachusetts game development studio owned by Warner Bros., and software engineer Jonathan Ross previously worked at Zynga, the online game developer.

I’m eager to see what Jibo has been working on; apparently there was a hush-hush demo in California last month that someone neglected to invite me to. But here’s Breazeal talking about “The Rise of Personal Robots” at the 2011 TED conference.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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