Will This Rolling Robot Fly off the Shelves?

French startup Wany plans to mass-market a wheeled robotic toy that also does housework, and at prices competitive with Sony's Aibo

Robots have always roused people's imaginations, mostly with apocalyptic visions of humans being surpassed by their own creations. In recent years, however, market successes like Sony's Aibo have changed that, turning the robot into a playful companion. Now others are gearing up to follow suit.

One of those is the Pekee robot created by French startup Wany. Resembling a large insect on wheels, Pekee will, like the new Aibo, dance and make grimaces. But what will differentiate this little creature from its competitor is that it will also vacuum the floors and guard the house while its owners are away. Sound far out? Pekee's creator, 29-year-old CEO Erwann Lavarec, is far from thinking so, and, on the contrary, has planned everything -- down to the wheels -- as rationally as possible. "The wheels are there to limit risks, since a robot with paws can more easily malfunction," says Lavarec. "This is my first company, and my first experience with the actual [industrial] production of a product, and we can't allow errors."

Indeed, Lavarec has big plans for his robot. The PhD student at LIRMM, the laboratory for computer science, robotics, and microelectronics in Montpellier, plans to sell his rolling creature on the consumer market and to begin mass production by the end of next year. The young CEO, who is gathering support within the scientific community and expanding the vision of his company, is confident that his product will find a market niche. "The market for entertainment robots is taking off, thanks to Sony with its Aibo, which has sold tens of thousands," he says.


  Trying to compete with Sony may seem far-fetched for a one-year-old startup, but Lavarec is determined to succeed. And to help him do so, he has the backing of 200 researchers and PhD students at LIRMM. "The Wany team can count on us for advice and for exchanging ideas. In return, Wany will lend us its material from time to time," says Philippe Lucidarme, a PhD student in the same lab.

But that's not all. Lavarec has also created partnerships in the industry. Politech, a production factory in Montpellier, will manufacture 100 Pekee copies before the end of this year. This first series will be sold for $2,700 per piece, mainly to researchers who can use the Pekee as a development platform for their own work. And, adds Lavarec, "in addition to selling them the robot, we are also providing them with the expertise of 18 engineers specialized in robotics who can help them configure codes and understand different extensions."

The young CEO, who did not neglect to take marketing courses, will also use this first experience to gather advice from actual users before mass production begins. Not only that, but sales of this first batch of a hundred Pekees will help the company come up with the $930,000 it still needs for its development plans. And as part of its development, Wany is hoping to export its robot to countries like the U.S. and Japan.


  Once on the market, the price of a Pekee will vary only slightly from that of the new Aibo, which runs for about $1,600. "We could create a low-price robot, but in order to remain in keeping with the standard Sony created, we will sell ours for only slightly less than the Aibo," says Lavarec. So, like the Aibo, the Pekee is meant as a luxury object, despite the fact that it will be produced on a mass scale and will target the general consumer market.

Wany has other things up its sleeve as well. To avoid putting all its eggs in one basket, the young startup also plans on selling its engineering services to companies hoping to develop their own machines. That way, if Pekee doesn't win over consumers, Lavarec and his team will still be able to put their scientific and creative skills to work. And who knows, maybe the startup will end up forming partnerships with these companies and actually come up with a whole family of playful, and most importantly, hard-working Pekees. Let's just hope that making these robots do household chores won't eventually cause them to turn against their owners -- and creators.

By Cécile Ducourtieux

Translated by Inka Resch

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