By Nan Price, Content Manager MetroHartford Alliance
Movia Robotics President and Chief Technology Officer Timothy Gifford was doing work in social robotics and robot interaction when he developed the concept for Movia Robotics in 2008.
“My wife is a schoolteacher. We talked about how kids in her classroom were presenting with autism and there weren’t really good tools for working with them, other than one-on-one interaction with a therapist. It was affecting activity in the classroom,” Tim explains.
He began research and found several international institutions were having some success using robots to work with autistic kids. “I thought: If we can get this out of the lab and into the classroom, it could make a big impact,” he recalls.
“As an entrepreneur, I was keen to get into robotics because you could see it was the future,” Tim adds. “I saw there was a lot of work on solving specific needs, like how to make a robot grasp or navigate. But people weren’t working on ‘collaborative robotics,’ which involves interacting with robots.”
UP ON THE WAVE
The timing was right after the economic downturn, which Tim thought was a great time to start a company. “I figured it would take a while to get everything together and, when the wave of robotics really hits, we would be up on the wave rather than down at the bottom trying to start out.”
Tim and some University of Connecticut researchers applied to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and received a grant to research using robots with children. “The focus was to look at whether this idea was effective and if it could help children with learning challenges,” Tim explains. “We set up a series of tests and found that the concept could improve their ability to interact.”
The grant also enabled Tim and the research team to determine whether they could create a system that could be deployed not just in the lab, but in the field. “We found that we could, in a small way, but it would take a lot of product development work,” he recalls.
STARTUP CHALLENGES AND GROWING PAINS
The development work was being done part time, which slowed product development—but enabled Tim to work closely with teachers and special education professionals to develop a useful tool for their classrooms.
Funding was another challenge. “The product and the market weren’t quite ready. The product wasn’t affordable enough and it was complex to run in terms of the robot. Our software was also complex because we didn’t have a lot of funding,” says Tim.
“Getting funding initially was difficult because we were too early in assisted technology, robotics, autism, and then just getting into the educational market—those are all difficult things for investors to think about funding. They wanted us to provide more evidence of our efficacy,” Tim explains.
“And then, at a certain point, we shifted from being too early to being at it too long. It was frustrating because this isn’t a ‘light the fuse and the rocket will take off’ kind of thing,” he notes.
CREATING A SOLUTION
The solution Movia created to helping children with autism involves having the children interact with a robot and then building a system that enables people and robots to work together.
“It’s a perfect concept because I am an inventor. I like to solve problems and build things,” says Tim. “This was a great opportunity to build something that would solve a real problem. We’re providing a tool, backed by an actual research-based use case, that extends the reach for teachers and therapists working with children on the spectrum.”
REFINING THE BUSINESS MODEL
Having known each other for several years from different events in the Hartford business circuit, Jean-Pierre (JP) Bolat and Tim got reacquainted in early 2018 at the World Affairs Council’s Diplomats reception. JP was keenly interested in the Movia story helping children with autism and offered to help grow and refine the business model.
“At the time, Tim was trying to handle everything himself—finance, human resources, project management, and developing the software and systems—not because he wanted to, but because he had to,” says JP.
“In my initial business plan and meetings with our first investors, I said the first hire we need is a CEO,” Tim confirms. But he recognizes that, “when you have a startup, you do whatever is needed.”
Fortunately, Tim was able to bring JP on as a Board Member and CEO and the two began to divide the business responsibilities. While Tim focuses on the technology, JP’s focus is on the business model and go-to-market strategy.
MAKING A PIVOT
With JP on board, the company could take a fresh look at what was and wasn’t working. A change in the business model was evident.
“We’ve been successful in creating a distributor model and pivoting from our original business model, in which we were buying robots, keeping them in inventory, and taking responsibility for all the robotics hardware, service, and software. Now, we’ve shifted the responsibility of the robotics hardware and service to our distributor partners and we can focus on developing and selling our software,” explains JP. “We go to schools and demo the product. They choose a robot, we contact our distributor, then the distributor sells the robot and we deploy the system.”
JP refers to Movia as a “robot-agnostic software company,” which enables them to work across a multitude of robots.
“Robot companies come and go. A new one will come along with a better, faster, cheaper robot,” he says. “We don’t want to be tied to any one piece of hardware, because what if that robot company gets bought, changes its own sales structure, or goes out of business?”
Tim recognizes that his involvement with the entrepreneur and innovation ecosystem in Connecticut has helped Movia along its journey.
Through the MetroHartford Alliance, Movia connected with MassChallenge. Although the company applied to their accelerator in 2015 they were declined. Undeterred, Movia went through the reSET Impact Accelerator in the spring of 2016 and then the next year reapplied to MassChallenge. This time, they got in.
“Both of those accelerator experiences were really helpful for us,” notes Tim. “And through them we connected with a lot of other local resources CTNext, Connecticut Innovations, the Connecticut Technology Council, as well as regional and international groups including MassRobotics.“
MAKING AN IMPACT
It’s been a long road to get the company to where it is now. “It was necessary for us to restructure the company as a corporation and lean up our entire operation. Now, we’ve got our product in the box and we’re coming out with newer versions,” says Tim.
“Having worked on this project so long, it’s gratifying to receive positive responses from parents and the schools,” he adds. “It’s also great to get a positive response from the distributors who are helping us move our product. The only way we’re going to make an impact on kids with learning challenges is if we’re offering a successful product.”
The hard work and attention to the fundamentals are starting to pay off. Movia, in collaboration with its partners The Bolat Group, LLC and RobotLab, Inc., just won a major contract from the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) to provide their product to schools on U.S. military bases around the world.
“We competed with five other companies for the contract and our product was selected,” Tim says with pride. “I really owe a lot to everyone who has worked on this effort over the years, especially the current team including JP, whose energy and insight has helped us achieve our current success.”