Bossa Nova - Serious Child's Play - Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bossa Nova - Serious Child's Play

Bossa Nova robotics is a neat example of one city's transformation from 20th century industrial relic into a more entrepreneurial 21st century metropolis. It's a start-up specializing in robotic toys "designed in Pittsburgh, made in China and distributed everywhere," says co-founder David Palmer. Bossa Nova's babies are called Penbo and Prime-8. The first is a robotic penguin ($79.99) that needs some nurturing. It responds to touch and sound, and it has a penguin egg that pops out, makes sounds and communicates with its mother via a heart-shaped infrared receiver. Prime-8 ($99.99) is a game-playing gorilla that has what Palmer calls an aggressive and dynamic play pattern. The ape can chase its owner and fling coconuts at anyone crossing its path. "It's an exciting year for us--our launch year. We have looked forward to this for four years," he says.

These are smart little toys, having grown up at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the renowned tech-computer-engineering school. In the aftermath of steel's fade-out, CMU emerged as the city's high-tech incubator. "The toys were initiated from five-plus years of research on high-performance legged robots," says Sarjoun Skaff, Bossa Nova's chief technologist, who conducted much of that research. When Skaff let his lab bots loose in front of children assembled on the CMU campus, they were enthralled. "That was really when we understood a magical connection between a dynamic, mobile robot and children. We knew we had something if we could lower the cost," says Skaff.

That's a challenge that even the biggest companies face: how to get an expensive prototype created in a controlled lab environment to be affordable and robust in the chaotic world of the consumer--and in this case, a consumer whose bicycle may still have training wheels. Skaff's lab bot cost $20,000 to build. Bossa Nova's products had to retail for less than $100. Call it an order-of-magnitude problem.

While Skaff worked on building cheaper components, Palmer, a former strategic planner at FedEx, tapped the city's and state's emerging incubation systems. A nonprofit called the Technology Collaborative, which promotes robotics, helped with office space and grants for product design. A state-sponsored incubator called Innovation Works provided early-stage funding. Bossa Nova won a business-plan contest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Technology Council and gained more exposure, money and advice. "We could not have survived without all of them," says Palmer. This would not have happened in the old Pittsburgh, which was insular and somewhat skeptical of entrepreneurs.

Like most other newbies, Bossa Nova made missteps. The biggest: trying to shape a single toy that would appeal to both boys and girls. The company was strongly advised to refine its robot's purpose. What emerged was two separate products: one designed around power, for boys, and one around interaction, for girls. Palmer and Skaff say their attempt to create a single product probably set them back a year. "We felt like we were smart-enough guys to learn it and do it on our own," says Palmer.

Another part of maturing is knowing when to shift from entrepreneurial mode, in which creativity and development trump all else, to business mode, in which adult supervision becomes mandatory. For Bossa Nova, that meant hiring a toy-industry gun, in the form of new CEO Martin Hitch, a veteran of Mattel and Hasbro. Penbo and Prime-8 were introduced in Europe this year, using local distributors. But the company, whose revenues are approaching $4 million, wants to crack the U.S. market and its big retailers. With the selling season for next year under way, Hitch will help Bossa Nova get six products into the mix.

A 12-person outfit like Bossa Nova, or 100 firms like it, will never replace the jobs at the big steel plants that once defined Pittsburgh. Palmer and Skaff wanted best-in-class manufacturing; for robotic toys, that means China. But Skaff says Bossa Nova is by no means constrained by child's play. He sees a company that can grow with its customers. "As the children age, they will be familiar with our toys," he says. "We will introduce robots that accompany them in their lifestyles." In other words, personal robots, born in Pittsburgh.

News Story Courtesy Time