The last few days have been very kind to Paolo Pirjanian, founder and CEO of Embodied Inc. On March 19, Embodied started shipping its Moxie robot that supports social, emotional, and cognitive development in children. And today Pirjanian was named a venture partner at Calibrate Ventures, a California-based early stage venture capital firm.
Pirjanian said his day-to-day role at Embodied won’t change. In fact, it’s really just beginning. He said there are 10,000 families on the waiting list for Moxie. The companion robot market hasn’t been kind to companies over the years, but Pirjanian said on LinkedIn this “is a worthwhile mission and it will change the world for the better.” He was the second-ever guest on The Robot Report Podcast, explaining why building companion robots is a ‘moonshot.’ You can listen to that episode here.
Pirjanian will help Calibrate Ventures scout robotics and automation technologies that are 5-10 years on the horizon, doing both technical and market due diligence. He will also be available to mentor Calibrate’s portfolio companies.
“We’re just trying to surround ourselves with the best coaches possible,” said Jason Schoettler, co-founder and managing partner of Calibrate Ventures.
“This type of position has been on my mind as I’ve gained experience and been scarred building companies,” said Pirjanian. “I’ve had 20-plus years in robotics entrepreneurship, which is hopefully [valuable] to other entrepreneurs.”
Pirjanian has known Schoettler and Calibrate Ventures co-founder Kevin Dunlap for years. Prior to founding Calibrate Ventures, Dunlap and Schoettler worked at Shea Ventures. That firm invested in Pirjanian’s startup Evolution Robotics, which was acquired by iRobot in 2012 for an estimated $74 million. iRobot embedded Evolution’s core autonomous navigation technology into its Roomba robot vacuums and expanded its consumer product line to include Evolution’s Mint robotic vacuum, which was renamed Braava.
“Paolo’s technical chops, clear vision, and excellent operational skills were clear back then, and we invested in Evolution Robotics from the beginning,” said Schoettler. “He was an incredible salesman and marketer.”
“The first time you met me, you had no idea I had technical skills,” Pirjanian said to Schoettler. “You thought I came more from the financial background.”
Pirjanian was iRobot’s CTO until October 2015. In 2016 he founded Embodied, which Calibrate Ventures also backs financially. Calibrate led Embodied’s $22 million Series A in 2018 and invested in a follow-on round in March 2020. There are several reasons Calibrate Ventures backed Embodied, but Schoettler said the firm believes the world is on a cusp of a new category of technology called “animates.”
“The robots of the future won’t just perform automated tasks, but will interact with human beings in a natural give-and-take,” he said. “Animates are a new category of robots that are socially aware and exist to help and benefit humans. Unlike Alexa and today’s other voice-activated robots, animates bring altruistic emotional development and companionship to humans, complimenting human-to-human relationships and benefitting society at large.
“We first invested in Embodied back in 2018 and have supported them all along their journey since then because Paolo and his exceptional team are on a bold mission to build a social operating system for machines to interact with humans. They are the prime-mover in a new category of social machines and Moxie is an absolutely stunning technological and societal achievement.”
Investing advice for robotics startups
Since he’s had experience raising funding and is now part of the “dark side,” I asked Pirjanian if he had investment advice for robotics startups.
“I had no idea how fundraising even worked when I started as a robotics entrepreneur,” said Pirjanian. “Talk to as many people as you can who’ve done it before, be open-minded and learn from them. It can save you time, money and pain. Don’t let them make decisions for you, just process the input with an open mind and you’ll learn something.”
“When you’re raising money, make sure you’re aligned with the investor on the vision for the product and company. If you’re not, there can be friction between the entrepreneur and investor.”
“Pay attention to your team,” he added. “Everything starts and ends with the team.”
Dunlap was recently on The Robot Report Podcast. He shared his thoughts some of the major robotics investments that have recently taken place, including the Berkshire Grey SPAC and Locus Robotics’ $150 million Series E. He discussed how SPACs could change the future of investing, how Calibrate Ventures evaluates companies to invest in, and he shares advice for young startups looking to raise funding. Listen to the podcast below.