Steve Chambers says he first heard about the “social robotics” startup Jibo in late 2013, when two friends mentioned the startup to him within two hours on the same day. At the time, Chambers was running worldwide sales, marketing, and business development for Nuance, the publicly held speech recognition company in Burlington. Chambers says he couldn’t leave that post immediately, but he joined Jibo’s board last September as executive chairman, and helped founder Cynthia Breazeal raise $25 million in new funding.
Today, the Weston company is announcing that Chambers, a veteran of both the speech recognition and videoconferencing industries, is joining Jibo as its new CEO.
Breazeal, who took a leave from her MIT professorship to build the company and had been serving as CEO, is shifting to the role of chief scientist.
Jibo emerged from stealth mode last year to launch a crowdfunding campaign for a countertop “family robot” that will be able to coordinate schedules, initiate video chats, relay messages, tell bedtime stories, and snap family photos. That campaign raised $2.3 million from early adopters eager to get their hands on the ‘bot, which was initially priced in the $499 to $599 range.
Nuance has developed speech recognition systems deployed in Ford cars and Apple iPhones, as well as the Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation software. Chambers had been president of sales and marketing at the company, and before that had been chief marketing officer at SpeechWorks International (a Boston company that Nuance acquired) and PictureTel, a pioneering videoconferencing company that was bought by Polycom in 2001.
Asked what attracted him to the opportunity at Jibo, he said, “I’ve been selling disembodied voice and artificial intelligence for a long time, and we always were striving to achieve a rapport and a relationship with users. When I met Cynthia and heard about the field of social robotics, I had the sense that there was more that could be done with the interaction between these new technologies and people.” Rather than just a voice emanating from a smartphone, he says, “You have an actual physical presence that can move, and show on-screen graphics, and have sound effects.” Unlike iRobot’s Roomba line of cleaning robots, Chambers, says that Jibo is “not a task robot — it really is about a social rapport, and companionship.”
The new funding round was led by RRE Ventures of New York. Other backers include CRV, Jibo’s initial investor; Fairhaven Capital; Osage University Partners; Flybridge Capital Partners; Two Sigma Ventures; Formation 8; Samsung Ventures; and several individual angels.
Chambers says the company plans to start shipping robots in December, and that he is currently hunting for office space in downtown Boston. Jibo, with about 15 employees in Weston and San Francisco, could grow to more than 50 by the end of 2015, Chambers says. “We’re aggressively focusing on hardware and software engineers, and people with cloud experience,” he says, “since Jibo will connect to the cloud and download content.”
Below is a Wall Street Journal interview with founder Cynthia Breazeal, shot at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. It shows a prototype version of the robot running through a short demo.
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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