F-U-N-D-E-D: The crowd wants their robots at home -- and under the covers

Silicon Valley investments in robot startups surge amid crowdfunding campaigns backing technologies that track increasingly intimate parts of people's lives.

Max Taves Staff Reporter
Max writes about venture capitalism and startups while seeking out the new new thing to come out of Silicon Valley. He joined CNET News from The Wall Street Journal, where he contributed stories on commercial real estate, architecture, big data and more. He's also written for LA Weekly, Slate and American Lawyer Media's The Recorder, where he covered legal battles in Silicon Valley. Max holds degrees from Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Max Taves
4 min read

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Jibo's "family robot" is an 11-inch armless robot with an oval screen for a face. Think Wall-E from the Pixar movie but as a kind of automated butler on steroids. Jibo

The masses have been speaking with their cash this year, donating hundreds of millions of dollars through crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter.

And this week, Silicon Valley's venture capitalists answered with theirs, giving the crowds what they, apparently, really want: robots at home that anticipate thoughts, read stories to the kids and help grandma -- or that live under the sheets.

And if you're not into that, blame your neighbors before you condemn Silicon Valley. That's because this week three startups announced they received funds from traditional venture capital sources after raising millions of dollars from the online masses through Indiegogo.

For years, crowdfunding websites have given the average person a chance to donate to projects they'd like to see. And those sites have taken on an important role for venture capitalists: an early warning system showing just how much consumers want their products, encompassing everything from selfie sticks to vineyards to one more dating app. And many products getting the most backing are ever-smarter robots that will track the increasingly intimate parts of people's lives.

"We saw the 3D printer trend, the drone trend, the activity tracker and now it's smaller robots," says Indiegogo CEO Slava Rubin, describing waves of interest in new technology. "The crowd wants to improve their lives. They want to track their health, track their home, understand everything going on."

Consider Jibo, the maker of an 11-inch armless, rotating cylindrical robot that sports an oval screen for a face. Think Wall-E as a kind of automated butler on steroids. The Boston-based startup, founded by MIT professor Cynthia Breazeal, announced this week that it has raised $37 million from venture capital investors on top of the $3.71 million it had already raised from 7,422 Indiegogo supporters.

Jibo's "family robot" will also be a "fun and supportive storyteller" that, according to the company, is smart enough to recognize your face, to detect when you want to be photographed, to talk and read stories to your kids and -- in one pretty dramatic promise -- "will put a smile on your face and make you feel better." That's something to look forward to when the robot begins shipping sometime this fall.

Two other startups want to build robots that will track you in bed -- and offer you some pointers.

More than 5,000 people donated a combined $1.3 million to Luna, the maker of a smart bed cover that, among other things, promises to learn your sleep habits and make adjustments accordingly. Sleep better when it's cool? Luna won't just adjust the temperature of the sheet. It also communicates with Google's Nest smart thermostat to turn on the air conditioning when you'll want it.

And then there's Sleepace. In January the Chinese-based company raised $165,000 -- or more than four times its goal -- from the Indiegogo crowd to produce RestOn. The $149 device rests between the sheet and mattress where its "medical-grade" sensors will track your heart rate, body movements, sleep cycles and respiratory rate and then give you "comprehensive sleep analysis and expert sleep guidance."

Oh, and Sleepace has another benefit: Its website says it will also allow you to "keep an eye on the sleeping patterns of your loved ones, too."

Sleepace this week said it received $7 million in venture funding. Investors include JD.com, a rival of China e-commerce giant Alibaba.

And, by the numbers, these investments aren't anomalies. Robots are a hot commodity. That's what venture capitalists think anyway.

In just the last three months, VCs poured $587.27 million into startups making robot accessories, consumer robots and artificial intelligence. That's the biggest quarterly investment in at least five years, according to research firm Pitchbook, which tracks all things VC-related. And so far this year, VCs have put $688 million into robot-focused startups -- more than the $681 million they invested in all of 2014 or at any time in at least five years.

So why's the crowd so into robots?

Campaigns to build products that consumers can pick up, wear or just touch have fared better on crowdfunding sites than less tangible ones. After all, both the Pebble smartwatch and virtual-reality headset maker Oculus, for example, got their starts on Kickstarter. Tile, the object-tracker, tapped into crowdfunding for a boost, too.

"What we see is an enthusiasm for projects that are touching the future in an interesting way," says John Dimatos, who heads technology and design projects at Kickstarter. "You see that represented in projects like the Oculus Rift and the Pebble watch."

Reaching out to the crowd helped shape Luna's smart sleep tracker, according to its CEO, Matteo Franceschetti. He says his project received more than 100 ideas, including adding Bluetooth, which he built into the product.

Luna's bed tech won't be covering any mattresses until the end of this year, when Franceschetti says the product will begin shipping. But even though the first generation is still under wraps, thanks to the $1.3 million that the crowd gave him in preorders, Luna is already designing the next version. Fortunately, its CEO hinted at what to expect.

"It will be very smart. We see the opportunity of having a sort of fingerprint of your body," Franceschetti said. "We will learn your habits."

F-U-N-D-E-D is a regular column looking -- and sometimes laughing -- at what Silicon Valley has backed in the last week.