Cynthia Breazeal has never been on the cover of Popular Mechanics, but she probably likes it that way. The roboticist who started the Personal Robots Group at MIT Media Lab is also an MIT associate professor, but her latest endeavor is a company (and a robot) named Jibo. A few months ago, Jibo--an all white robot that stands about 11-inches tall and can recognize your voice and your face--was on the cover of Pop Mech, posing for the camera and serving as proof that robots can relate better to humans.
Breazeal started the company after a successful Indiegogo campaign last summer. The original goal was to raise $100,000 in crowdfunding, but the robot in a promotional video looked so charming and intelligent, they went on to raised over $2M.
Since then, Breazeal and her team have focused mostly on building a developer kit for the robot, tweaking how it responds to you (Jibo can now turn toward your voice), and adding features like the ability to snap your photograph for a selfie. Of course, as with any startup that involves an unreleased product, another challenge has been in convincing people the Jibo will one day become a real shipping product that debuts sometime next summer.
"There is always a challenge in communicating about a product that is the first of its kind," says Breazeal, speaking to Inc.com. "We need to make that vision concrete enough to help people see what a product and platform like Jibo can mean as part of our daily life in the relatively near term, but also open people's imaginations to how that can grow and evolve in really transformative ways."
To do that, Breazeal had to put a few pieces of the startup puzzle together. She started with the demo video, but has since appeared multiple times at conferences like CES (where she gave a keynote) and recently at South by Southwest (where she gave a panel).
For new investors, she's shown the video but also demonstrated the features of the social robot in person. Fortunately, Jibo mostly sells itself. In a room, the robot can listen to a specific voice. You can ask the robot to set a reminder or keep a task list for you. It can identify one person in a crowd and maintain "eye contact" with that person and snap photographs at random to record images at an event.
Breazeal also hired a PR firm, tapped a well-known design company (called RainFactory, part of Monsoon) to build a website, and ramped up their social media presence. The CEO at Jibo, Steve Chambers, says one key to building the company was to demonstrate the robot capabilities as often as possible, sometimes in person but often through a video. He says the company avoided talking about the technical features like the ambient light sensors, the internal processing, or the two-way communication.
"Investors speaking with a Jibo prototype directly or watching Jibo bring his skills to consumers in a video made a breakthrough product feel familiar, useful and engaging," he says, explaining that a spec sheet listing out the robot features is not as helpful.
There's a good lesson there for any company. Amazing products should be demonstrated to anyone who will watch and listen because there's nothing quite like a proof of concept. It's important to take out your phone and show your mobile app, or to always have a prototype handy. We envision not just what the product is now but what it could be in the future. We nod in agreement to the idea of establishing a company around the product, and see the need for funding and development. Too many sales demos focus on the finances and technical aspects of building a company; they make it impersonal.
Jibo (the company) will find out for sure if the robot is a hit. The first backers will receive an early version of the social robot this summer or even this spring. Here's hoping those automated selfies turn out perfectly--and so do all of their company plans.