UConn-based startup develops robot technology for students with autism
Automated and semi-automatic robot technology has come a long way since being iconic figures in science fiction. Today, they help mankind in various forms, from heavy industrial manufacturing to mobile personal assistants.
Thanks to an innovative idea of a University of Connecticut (UConn) researcher, semi-automated robots will now serve a more prominent purpose in the special education sector.
Movia Robotics, Inc. (Movia), a startup founded by UConn Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy researcher Tim Gifford, has developed a technology that helps children on the autism spectrum with social skills, learning readiness, and academics.
“As far back as the 1970s, research has shown that children with special needs respond well to robots and that their interactions are effective,” said Gifford who is now Movia’s president and chief technical officer.
“Adults and other children can be very off-putting for an autistic child. Interacting with the robots is more consistent, simpler, and is never judgmental. It makes interactions less stressful.”
Gifford also added that robots are now an attractive educational aid for kids and adults alike regardless of having special needs due to their rising ‘cool factor’.
Despite being around for decades, robots are still rising in popularity as novelty pieces of technology that almost anyone can own at home now. So it’s a given that they would also be seen as useful tools in the education sector as well.
Gifford’s initial idea to develop Movia’s technology began in 2008, during his grant-funded research on social robotics. The idea spurred from his wife, who was a teacher, commenting on the lack of trained therapists to handle students with autism.
Leveraging his background in business and technology commercialisation, Gifford sought out the technology transfer team at UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research to help protect his intellectual property and to advance this new robot technology.
“This was always our goal – to take this out of the lab and into the classroom. But we knew we needed a strong management team to make that happen and UConn helped connect us with the right people,” he said.
“Making a commercially viable product that was both robust and easy to use was the surest way to get it into the hands of as many schools and students as possible, where it could do the most good.”
Now, Movia continues to grow in order to cover more ground in the special education landscape. Gifford and his business partners have successfully licensed the use of their software to the Bristol, Suffield and Wallingford school systems where it will help 75 students in special education.
The startup has also increased its reach beyond national borders by licensing the tech to manufacturers that make and sell robots to schools nationwide and in Canada.
Movia’s recent achievement is netting a US$6.4 million deal with the US Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). Together with their distribution partners, the Bolat Group, LLC and RobotLAB, Inc., Movia will provide their software to bases around the world to enhance communication, social interactions, and executive functioning for children in the Department of Defence (DoD) schools.
“We’re really excited about this new contract and what it means for the future of our company,” said Movia CEO Jean-Pierre ‘JP’ Bolat
“This accelerates our tech development roadmap and will allow us to fully deploy additional innovations originating from Tim’s time at UConn.”
“An idea with roots at UConn is now having tangible, positive impacts for families in our state and those serving our country around the world. Movia Robotics exemplifies the types of innovative companies that UConn is committed to helping succeed and grow in Connecticut,” added UConn and UConn Health vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship Radenka Maric.
The special education robot technology developed by Movia is a viable and robust self-autonomous platform that requires little involvement from a teacher.
The startup is confident in the prospects this technology will bring, and their strategic technology roadmap will work to expand and improve this technology’s capabilities to focus on greater autonomy with the use of Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced sensor capabilities to enhance their products and offerings.
“With the implementation of the IP we developed at UConn, the robot is able to run the process in a semi-autonomous fashion and the teacher or therapist is able to devote even more attention to the children, their progress and documentation,” added Gifford.
“With this semi-autonomous capability, schools can treat as many kids as needed. It’s a much more streamlined approach.”
Gifford’s hopes that their efforts will ultimately widen the accessibility of their technology so that a Movia robot can be available for families with special needs children right in their very own homes.
“Ultimately, this system is about how people and robots can work together,” said Gifford.
“The fact that our technology and our business can help improve academic and social outcomes for these families is what keeps us going.”