Power Lunch: Steve Chambers, CEO of Jibo
Few startups in Boston have garnered as much attention as Jibo, the company bent on bringing the first truly social robot into our homes. Originally spawned in the MIT Media Lab, Jibo surpassed its Indiegogo campaign goal by 2,288 percent, raising more than $3.7 million. It has since raised some $60 million in venture capital and struck partnerships with some of the world’s biggest tech firms, including Samsung and KDDI. CEO Steve Chambers sat down with Chris Sweeney for some broccoli and octopus at Trade, just a few blocks from the company’s downtown offices, to talk about Boston’s startup culture, Rosie from The Jetsons, and why Jibo—set to launch soon—is more than just another screen.
We’re already spending too much time buried in our cell phones. Why do I need a social robot?
At first blush it seems like another device, but what we’re trying to do at Jibo is create a character. He has a personality. He can recognize you by your face and your voice, and he can greet you by name. Jibo is designed for rapport and relationship. When you actually look at what he does and how he does it and the amount of connectedness that we have in this product—special messages that you send to people, special video links that you establish with people—it is far more about connecting with family and sharing experiences than it is individual experience.
Why not give Jibo arms, legs, and a skull-shaped head, and make it look more humanoid?
That’s a real self-conscious choice. What we don’t want to do is have you walk in and suffer the “uncanny valley,” which is a term in robotics for when things get creepy. The classic example is Tom Hanks in Polar Express. The more humanoid elements there are, the more you run the risk of being a little creeped out.
In the primaries, some people took to calling Marco Rubio “Robot Rubio.” Would Jibo find that insulting?
Definitely, because it’s used to reinforce the monotony of repetition. We’ve got hundreds of algorithms just so his expression to you of a single “yes” doesn’t start to feel the same.
Best fictional robot of all time?
Rosie on The Jetsons. She’s of service, she has a ton of emotion that she can express, she cares for the family, she lives to make the family more efficient, she’s not perceived as a servant—she’s perceived as a someone, not a something—and she’s really funny.
Worst fictional robot of all time?
The evil one on Lost in Space—the one with the black circular spheres that connect. Scared me as a kid, and I still think he’s got issues.
Is your company really a startup?
In that we had to raise money and that it literally started from scratch; that there were only eight of us a year ago and now there are 67; that, technically, the vision started with our cofounders, who are two extraordinary women—then yes. And we need to keep raising money and manage cash. It’s expensive to build a robot. It’s not like building enterprise software, where you can have five workstations and work in a garage. We need labs, we need a manufacturer—we’re manufacturing in China. Yeah, it feels like a startup.
Is Boston startup culture broken?
I would never say that Boston isn’t a fertile environment for startups. There are a couple of things that need to happen to make it a little more fertile. This is a great city with a ton of young people and a ton of tech talent, decent mass transportation, and, I am a little biased, but I think this is a gorgeous city to live in.
In California, there’s much more permission to fail, there’s risk-taking that’s a little bit broader. There’s a conservatism around Boston, even though it’s a dyed-in-the-wool blue state. “Pragmatism” is the better word for it—it’s not conservative, it’s ultra-pragmatic. When you’re in an environment surrounded by startups who are all desperate to stay alive and relevant, it makes you fight for yours.
Could the city be doing more to support startups?
We already have the T, but maybe make the hours a little longer, make it a little more frequent on the Red Line on the weekends, and we’d be golden. It’s also too expensive here. We couldn’t afford Kendall, we couldn’t afford farther out on Kendall or Central, we couldn’t recruit in Waltham and Watertown—we ran all these scenarios. I think a few more VCs need to double down here, because a lot have defected or pared down their offices here.