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Social robots startup Jibo Inc. raises money from Charles River, but stays quiet

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 29, 2013 07:45 AM

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It has been quite a few years since I first heard that MIT Media Lab prof Cynthia Breazeal was working on a company to commercialize some of her work, which focuses on expressive robots that can interact naturally with humans. But now it actually seems to be happening. There's no site yet, and Breazeal isn't talking, but she has raised several million dollars in early funding from Bruce Sachs at Charles River Ventures and filed to have the company's name, Jibo Inc., trademarked.

A former iRobot executive, Thomas Allen, had listed his new employer as Jibo on LinkedIn. But he removed the affiliation shortly after I started making inquiries about the company. Jibo has been talking to other local prospective employees with experience in launching consumer electronics, and my hunch is that the company will end up marketing a product for consumer use, as opposed to a bot for industrial applications.

Jibo's trademark application gives a bit of insight into what the company may be up to: it discusses "personal robots, namely, interactive social and emotive robots that provide information, entertainment, education, and communications capabilities." And among the patents that have been issued to Breazeal is one for "interactive systems employing robotic companions."

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 4.33.40 PM.pngIn the late 1990s, Breazeal designed one of the first social robots, Kismet, which was able to react to humans based on how they moved and their tone of voice; it is now on display at the MIT Museum. In 2008, the Nexi robot from Breazeal's Personal Robots group at MIT was named one of Time Magazine's 50 best inventions of the year. Another bot from the Personal Robots group, Tofu, is pictured at left.

Breazeal gave a talk at the TEDWomen conference in 2010 about "the rise of personal robots." I've embedded it below. (The picture of Breazeal above originally accompanied a 2011 piece in the Globe, when she was listed among the city's 25 most stylish people.)

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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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