Jibo Lays Off Staff Several Months After Launch of “Social Robot”

Xconomy Boston — 

Less than a year after Jibo began shipping its long-awaited “social robot” to consumers, the startup has reportedly laid off almost all of its employees.

A Jibo spokesperson told BostInno that the company recently carried out a “significant reduction” in its workforce and cut other costs to give the startup “additional time to secure additional funding or pursue an exit.” An unidentified former Jibo employee reportedly told BostInno that the company is down to five to 10 employees in Boston, and it closed its other office in California months ago. The company had around 100 employees last year, the source told BostInno.

Xconomy confirmed the recent layoffs with two sources with knowledge of the company, although they didn’t share any numbers. One source said new funding for Jibo didn’t materialize.

It’s a disappointing turn of events for one of the more closely watched robotics startups of the past few years. Jibo (pronounced JEE-bo) was founded by Cynthia Breazeal, a well-known MIT Media Lab researcher and associate professor, and the company has generated plenty of buzz for its interactive home-assistant robot (pictured above)—including landing on the cover of Time magazine last year as one of the publication’s 25 best inventions of 2017.

Investors and consumers also saw promise. Jibo raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital from firms such as CRV, Fenox Venture Capital, and RRE Ventures. It also raised more than $3.6 million in an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that started in the summer of 2014.

But getting Jibo’s eponymous robot to market was a struggle, as the company delayed shipments several times and offered its Indiegogo backers full refunds if they wanted. The company began shipping the robot to early customers last September, and it began selling the device to the general public in October with a price tag of $899.

There were soon signs of trouble at the company. Jibo laid off an unspecified number of employees in December, BostInno reported, and it shifted CEO Steve Chambers to the role of executive chairman and appointed chief technology officer Brian Eberman as chief executive.

Although the company hasn’t shared details, it wouldn’t be surprising if Jibo struggled to sell its robot in part because consumers balked at paying such a high price tag, especially considering the availability of much cheaper home-assistant devices from big competitors like Google, Amazon, and Apple. (Disclosure: I own an Amazon Echo Dot, and my fiancée is employed by Amazon in Boston.)

Jibo performs some of the same tasks as voice-controlled “smart” speakers like the Echo Dot, such as delivering a weather report, setting an alarm, or telling a joke on command. But the startup was betting that its robot’s “unique and engaging personality,” and its ability to perceive and react to what’s happening around it, would set it apart. Jibo uses face and voice recognition technology, and the company has claimed it can learn to recognize up to 16 people. The device is stationary, but its three-axis motor system enables it to contort its shape and swivel 360 degrees. It might, for example, perk up when you speak to it, or it might say “hi” or deliver your personalized morning report—sharing the weather and traffic outlook, the latest news headlines, and a list of your calendar appointments—when you walk into the room.

Home robots could become more perceptive and filled with personality as the technology advances and the market for such products grows. But the way things are looking, at least for now, Jibo won’t be the company to lead the way.