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MIT robotics spin-out finds a home in Hong Kong

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 28, 2010 01:20 PM

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The last time I saw Cory Kidd, he was at the MIT Museum in Central Square talking about the "social robot" he'd developed as a project at the school's Media Lab; it was designed to help dieters meet their weight loss goals. A robot with expressive eyes and a face, Kidd had found, was pretty effective as a coach, nudging a dieter to eat better or exercise more, and affirming his accomplishments. (That's Kidd at right, speaking earlier today at the TieCon East conference in Waltham.)

Just over two years later, his nine-person company, Intuitive Automata, is headquartered in Hong Kong, and plans to start rolling out its first product in partnership with Hartford-based Aetna in late 2010 or early 2011, a pilot program that will be supported by Johnson & Johnson, he said.

"What healthcare insurers will tell you is that there's a difference in the amount they spend on people of normal weight each year, which is about $2400, and obese people, which is about $3600," Kidd says. "But they can't charge different premiums." It's in an insurer's interest, he suggests, to pay for or subsidize a device like the one he has built, to encourage customers to lose weight. (Kidd hasn't yet set a retail price for the bot.) He refers to the company's technology as "socially interactive robots" that support behavioral change, and also believes they could be use to help diabetes better manage their blood sugar levels.

How did Kidd's company, with its research roots at MIT and the Boston University Medical Center, wind up in Hong Kong? The short answer is: government incentives. Kidd says he looked at plunking the company in various US cities, as well as Singapore and Shanghai. But Hong Kong offered a roughly $250,000 interest-free, unsecured loan that could be paid back as a percentage of the company's revenues, as well as free rent for 18 months, and under-market rent for another 18 months after that. Intuitive Automata has also had several student employees whose salaries are predominantly paid by the government.

intuitive.jpg"Most of the angels and venture capitalists you talk to about social robots look at you like you're totally crazy," Kidd says. Since he'd only raised a small amount of angel money (mainly from MIT alums around the world, like the co-founder of Harmonix Music Systems), "I needed to go where I could run the company very cost-effectively." And being in Hong Kong also puts him closer to the contract manufacturing companies that will actually build the bots.

Kidd expects to start taking pre-orders for the product later this year; he also says he's in the midst of raising a first round of venture capital.

Here's a video demo of Intuitive's bot, called Autom:

Introducing Autom™ from Erica Young on Vimeo.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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