“Social” Robot Maker Jibo Adds $25M, New CEO With Speech Chops

After colonizing millions of pockets and purses with smartphones, the tech industry is finally making serious inroads to the home with interactive speakers, smart thermostats, networked camera systems, and—maybe soon—helpful little robots.

That last one is the specialty of Jibo, a Boston-area company started by MIT Media Lab professor Cynthia Breazeal. The company’s eponymous robot is still being built, but its appeal as a swiveling, listening, talking countertop assistant was enough to land the company $2.3 million in crowdfunded pre-orders from about 5,000 supporters.

Now, Jibo has taken two major steps to help it fulfill that promise: hiring a new CEO and rounding up $25.3 million in venture investment led by RRE Ventures.

The money will go “primarily” to helping Jibo (pronounced JEE-bo) fill those pre-orders and get started on the first round of more generally available units, the company said in a news release, including the search for manufacturing partners that can that “help take Jibo from idea to reality.”

The company’s new CEO is Steve Chambers, who previously was Jibo’s chairman after a long executive career at Boston-area speech technology company Nuance Communications. Chambers’s background in the speech world is telling, since voice recognition and “virtual assistant” voice interactions are a huge part of Jibo’s appeal.

Jibo founder and former CEO Breazeal assumes the role of chief scientist with Chambers’s hiring.

The greater Boston region is ripe with talent from the speech world, and those people are finding their skills in increasing demand as tech companies from many sub-sectors focus on the next wave of interfaces.

Nuance is a longtime Apple partner, helping supply core technology for the Siri assistant application, but Apple has also established a branch office in Cambridge, MA, stocked with veterans of Nuance and other speech companies. Amazon also has an office in the area focusing on speech technology, which is key to the company’s Echo product, a voice-activated in-home assistant device that is still not widely available.

(The home range of MIT is also a rich territory for robotics research and entrepreneurs, one of the main reasons we’re featuring Jibo and other big names in robotics innovation at Xconomy’s Robo Madness conference on March 11.)

Even with millions of dollars and plenty of companies pushing at the frontiers of in-home tech, you’d have to say the odds are high that early versions of many virtual assistant devices will not be effortlessly magical.

As anyone who’s used Siri on a regular basis can tell you, even a flagship product from the most important company in tech has some major holes—yesterday, I asked Siri to “look up a phone number” and it returned the Wikipedia entry for “phone numbers.”

Rudina Seseri, a partner at Jibo investor Fairhaven Capital, says Chambers’s background will help the startup fulfill its promise, and not just because he knows speech tech. “He brings unparalleled execution experience, having built companies from single-digit millions to billions of dollars in revenue,” Seseri said.

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