A company has developed a robot to help autistic children learn social reference skills and is raising $1.25 million to produce more in a beta production run.
The Popchilla robot conveys emotions such as anger, happiness and sadness as its ears and eye color changes according to its mood — social references children with autistic spectrum disorder struggle to interpret in other people.The robot’s motor commands and audio are embedded in a mobile app separate from the robot, which can be programmed by parents or high-functioning children. The app includes games to help children with daily routines and social interaction.
It is the first consumer robot for the autism therapy market, according to the company.
Some research has shown that autistic children find it easier to interact with robots than people. Robots from Interbots, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company whose founders graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University, are being used with special needs children at the Children’s Institute and autistic children at the Barber National Institute.
The company pitched to angel and venture capital investors at the 14th annual Angel Venture Fair in Philadelphia on May 1.
The target audience for the robot is children ages 3 to 15 with autism spectrum disorder, a population the company estimates to be 400,000. Eventually the company hopes to expand the Popchilla to special needs children.
With the $1.25 million it is seeking for a beta production run of 5,000 robots, it also wants to add a vice president of sales and marketing. It is also looking for an autism expert to join its advisory board.
The company was launched five years as an entertainment robotics company before moving into the autism space 18 months ago when a couple approached it for a robot after witnessing a breakthrough between their son and one of its models developed for science fairs, children’s museums and special events.
“They said their son rarely communicated with them and were surprised to find him having a 15 minute conversation with the robot,” said Seema Patel, Interbots CEO.
With the company’s high-end robots costing tens of thousands of dollars, it set about making a lower cost version. It estimates that its consumer model will cost about $500.
Seema Patel, Interbots CEO, at Angel Venture Fair