Educational robotics company Vän Robotics has received $200,000 investment from the SC Launch program, an affiliation of the publicly-funded non-profit South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA). The investment is part of a larger equity seed round of $640,000 that also included VC firm Social Starts.
Vän Robotics’ first product is ABii, an AI-driven “smart robot tutor” which complements classroom or at-home math learning for kids grades K-5. The desktop-sized ABii pairs with any wifi-enabled device (phones, tablets, laptops) to run different programs that teach children concepts like fractions, currency conversion and more.
Vän was started by Laura Boccanfuso, Ph.D., a former Yale University researcher in the social robotics field. Initially, Boccanfuso was conducting research on robotics-assisted learning specifically for children with learning disabilities.
“What we saw was that several kids in the control group, neurotypical kids, were also really benefitting from the type of platform,” she tells Hypepotamus.
“We also realized there was nothing in the market like this for a wide variety of kids that was really accessible.”
Boccanfuso left Yale to pursue the first iteration of her startup, moving back to her home state of South Carolina. There, she linked up with the SCRA and received initial funding through grants to develop the alpha version of ABii.
While running pilots in four schools across the country, she was recruited to the Techstars accelerator program in Austin, which also came with initial investment. Techstars helped her hone in on her target audience and learn business-building best practices, she says.
After completing the accelerator in 2018, Vän released an updated beta version of ABii, which is now helping kids in about a dozen schools.
The friendly robot is designed to look like a child, says Boccanfuso.
“It’s designed to look like someone a little older than [the kids], a little more knowledgable,” she says. “What we learned in studies of human-robot interaction is that kids like to be taught be other kids.”
But this robot kid has some pretty advanced wiring in its brain. Its machine learning capabilities are constantly learning and adapting to a child’s specific learning needs based on data its collecting about the individual child, as well as the larger population of ABii users.
ABii comes with a subscription-based learning software that runs through games and scenarios designed to teach educational concepts. For example, in one scenario the child helps a friend run a pizza parlor by using fractions to divide the pizza.
If a child’s attention drops, ABii will help them re-focus or suggest a brain break, which might come in the form of walking away from the computer or even taking a quick dance break.
“It’s not a nice ornamental object that sits next to the screen,” says Boccanfuso. “It’s really involved in the entire learning process as a tutor.”
Currently, ABii teaches all math concepts in the core curriculum for third, fourth, and fifth grade. Next up, Boccanfuso says they will release math for first and second grade, along with reading lessons.
ABii will come in two versions: school and consumer, both of which are sold for a flat hardware fee plus an annual software subscription. The school version, which sells for $999 plus $19.99 a month, can be used by an unlimited number of students.
The consumer version, which will sell for $599 plus $9.99 a month and can be used by up the three kids, will begin to ship out this August. The SC Launch funding will be used to manufacture the first 700 consumer robots.
Vän also recently received an NIH grant that will be used for hiring, taking the current team of 10 up to about 15 by end of year. Boccanfuso says that being based outside the traditional tech hubs has, thus far, not been a hardship for recruiting talent.
“SCRA was the first to believe in our vision to transform student learning through robotics and AI,” said Boccanfuso. “We are thrilled to have such an outstanding partner and are excited about the road ahead.”
Photos provided by Vän Robotics