HBJ Hartford Business Journal
November 2, 2020
With new investment, Bristol educational robotics maker seeks growth
CEO Jean-Pierre Bolat (standing) with his team at Movia Robotics in Bristol.
For some kids with autism, interacting with teachers and peers can be one of the biggest challenges they confront in school.
Facial cues and vocal tones may be difficult for them to interpret and social interactions may be stressful and frustrating.
Enter Kebbi, one of a suite of robots designed by Bristol-based Movia Robotics Inc.
“Robots are not judgmental, they’re not confusing,” said Movia CEO Jean-Pierre Bolat. “Children can learn from robots and it’s a really effective tool. There’s efficacy in using robots to teach children on the spectrum.”
Now Movia is ramping up marketing of its robot-assisted instruction system to parents and schools nationwide thanks to a $500,000 investment from Clean Feet Investors, an Avon-based fund that seeks to make money for clients while supporting a broad-based vision of global sustainability.
“This investment has really given us the runway to grow our team, grow our marketing efforts,” Bolat said.
Movia robots are currently in use in 145 elementary-school classrooms worldwide through a contract with the Department of Defense (DOD), in addition to homes nationwide.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company pivoted to principally offering the systems to families, at a cost of $800 per robot plus $80 a month for software and curriculum support. The Clean Feet investment, in the form of a debt note, will help Movia add to its 15-person staff and position it to fundraise for a $3 million seed round.
Movia’s 2019 revenue was $273,000 and forecast revenue for 2020 is $380,000.
Clean Feet historically has invested in a range of renewable energy projects and most recently took a stake in a company that makes hydroponic greenhouses. But Bernie Zahren, CEO of Clean Feet fund manager Zahren Financial Co. LLC, said that Movia helped his company broaden its range.
“The [Clean Feet] management team is proud to expand the overall mission of ‘doing well by doing good’ by diversification into this groundbreaking Movia technology,” Zahren said.
He added that his fund has adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which define 17 broad categories designed to help create a more eco-friendly and equitable world economy. The goals include clean water, better health care, gender equality and productive employment.
Movia’s robots range from a desktop model to a larger robot designed to stand in front of a classroom.
“They have taken a much more holistic view of the world and said all of these things matter if we really want to preserve the planet,” Zahren said. Movia’s products come under the goal of improving education, he added.
Movia’s products grew out of robotics research that company founder and chief scientist Timothy Gifford conducted at UConn’s Center for the Ecological Study of Perception & Action. Gifford’s wife, a schoolteacher, told him about the increasing number of students diagnosed with autism and he linked his work with research showing the effectiveness of robot instruction for children on the spectrum.
Bolat joined the company in 2018, inspired both by Gifford’s vision and the experiences of his own oldest son, 17 at the time, who is on the spectrum. He researched the topic himself and was impressed by studies that show real learning gains for autistic kids who work with robots.
“It’s been proven to work and work really, really well,” Bolat said.
After spending three months at Movia as a consultant, Bolat was asked to become CEO. The company converted from an LLC to a C-corporation in Jan. 2019, and took its robots to the marketplace. School systems including Bristol, Suffield and Wallingford were initial customers, followed by the DOD.
With the ongoing shutdown of schools during the pandemic, Movia has looked beyond its hub of school systems to individual consumers.
“It comes at a great time,” Bolat said of the Clean Feet investment. “Although we could grow organically through sales, this investment gives us the ability to increase our efforts in marketing, public relations and awareness.”
Movia currently offers a range of robots, from the moon-faced Kebbi, which has a variety of anime-like facial expressions and offers lots of positive feedback, to the 3-foot-tall iPal, designed to move around a classroom on a motorized base.
All robots operate using Movia’s proprietary WOZ Teacher’s Aide System and offer fundamental skills training using evidence-based techniques.
The software supports interactions and engagement with kids with special needs, particularly autism, the company said.
Movia offers additional support for upgrade and curriculum design.
“The neatest thing as a parent is to see the kids light up and how they can learn something that they couldn’t learn before,” Bolat said. “It opens these doors to a new world for these kids. That’s just so gratifying to see.”