A Q&A with JIBO co-founder and CEO Cynthia Breazeal. The Boston-based robotics startup has passed the $2 million mark in its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign (with an original goal of $100,000), with four days left. It was founded in 2012, and also raised a Seed funding round, amount undisclosed, over the summer.
SUB: Please describe JIBO and your target markets and users.
Breazeal: JIBO is the world’s first family robot that brings intelligence, helpfulness and ‘heart’ to the digital home as a mass consumer product.
We are initially targeting use cases for busy families and extended families where JIBO helps them do what they need and want to do around family care, coordination, as well as emotional connection and engagement. We have identified a powerful opportunity in creating a family technology that serves as a family hub, as counterpoint to personal devices for individuals, where social robots really shine.
Response from our crowdfunding campaign has shown strong appeal to parents, kids, (and) older adults—especially in the context of aging with independence, coordination with family caregivers, and connecting to grandkids.
We also see strong appeal to adults without kids because of the ‘cool factor. There is strong interest from the third party developer community, too, who are excited to bring their content and services ‘to life’ on a social robot platform.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates JIBO from the competition?
Breazeal: JIBO is a new product category, so there is no direct competition. If you compare JIBO to other consumer robots, there is clear differentiation. While prior consumer robots have been designed to serve a single utilitarian purpose—e.g. vacuuming, mowing, etc.—or target entertainment as a toy or surrogate pet, JIBO is the first consumer robot that unites intelligent agency and multi-purpose utility with personalized, emotional engagement—to engage you like a helpful companion.
You can think of JIBO as the logical evolution from smartphones and tablets with apps, where social robotics brings all this beyond flat screens into the real world as a friendly presence that feels more like part of the family than a device.
SUB: You just passed the $1.8 million mark in your Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Why did you choose to go the crowdfunding route, rather than traditional equity funding at this point?
Breazeal: We are fortunate to be successful with respect to both sources of funding. We are backed by terrific VCs and investors. We are also enjoying a successful crowdfunding campaign. The campaign has been a fantastic accelerant, where many companies, institutions, etc., have reached out and want to work with us to realize our vision. The campaign has also been a fantastic signal for market validation as well as developer community interest.
SUB: Once the campaign ends, how do you plan to use the funds, and do you have plans to seek additional outside funding in the near future?
Breazeal: Without question, product development and release late next year is our number one priority. The crowdfunding campaign has been a wonderful accelerant for this objective. It has opened doors to many opportunities that are helping us to bring JIBO to the world in terms of resources, talent, etc.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for JIBO? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Breazeal: I have been working in the field of social robotics, starting over a decade ago, at MIT. For me, JIBO is the conduit by which the transformative potential of social robotics can finally come into the world and make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. It is the next logical step not only in the transition from research to commercialization, but for technology to become humanized and to come into our world where it can engage us in a very different way from flat screens, boxes on our desks, or even things we wear.
SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?
Breazeal: The key first steps were to build the right team, find the right investors, define the right product concept, and start building a strong IP portfolio along with prototyping product.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Breazeal: ‘Jibo’ has a few meanings that connote someone with compassion and with a desire to uplift humanity. And in the urban dictionary, it means ‘totally cool.’ So, really, it is a perfect name for our company and our product.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Breazeal: All startups face a number of really key challenges early on. I think one of the most important is assembling the right team. The first key hires are absolutely critical. Given that JIBO is so new and innovative, finding the right blend of phenomenal talents and team chemistry has been of paramount importance. We have a fantastic team!
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Breazeal: As with other hardware-software platform-based products, we have multiple ways to generate revenue—from hardware sales, from digital content via our JIBO app store, from other accessories available on the JIBO online store, and ultimately through subscription-based services that we will offer over time.
SUB: What are your goals for JIBO over the next year or so?
Breazeal: We are heads-down in development of the product and platform to ship these pre-ordered units by late next year. Of course, we will continue to develop our business strategy and product strategy for mass consumer launch in 2016.