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'Pepper's father' ready for new robotic challenge

Kaname Hayashi, founder of Groove X, speaks at the Pioneers Asia startup event in Tokyo on March 23.

TOKYO -- Kaname Hayashi, who led the team that developed SoftBank Group's Pepper humanoid robot, is again in the spotlight as he recently set up a venture firm to create a revolutionary new robot.

     Hayashi established GROOVE X in Tokyo in November 2015, a few months after leaving Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant, in a bid to launch the new robot in 2019.

'Pepper's father'

Widely known as "Pepper's father," Hayashi is always thinking outside the box to try and father another unique robot. He aims to create "a robot that touches the hearts of humans," instead of conventional machines that just do jobs on behalf of people.

     Hayashi appeared at Pioneers Asia, a startup event, in Tokyo on March 23. He began to talk by asking his audience questions: "Have you ever watched the 'Star Wars' films?" and "Which ('Star Wars') robot do you like?"

     According to one survey, 80% of respondents said they like "Star Wars" robots that do not speak, such as R2-D2. Hayashi began his new robotic challenge after wondering why many people are fascinated by nonverbal communication.

     Looking back on the development of Pepper, Hayashi said the development project "progressed like a musical performance, with one idea inspiring another. I want to put emphasis on such a groove."

     GROOVE X wants to develop a robot for household use that can comfort humans as dogs and cats do. The new robot will not speak but will be able to understand to some degree what its owner says.

     The new robot will also change its behavior and develop a personality depending on its surroundings and its interaction with humans.

     GROOVE X has already made a cute prototype of the new robot, which is smaller than the Pepper robot but bigger than the AIBO robotic dog by electronics giant Sony.

     The prototype's gently curved shape apparently shows the importance of form for Hayashi, who was once an aerodynamicist at Toyota Motor.

     The prototype is kept under wraps. GROOVE X has yet to decide when it will unveil the new robot.

     Hayashi said confidently, "The concept (of the new robot) is impossible for somebody else to emulate easily." But he said that he has to be very careful in providing any information about the new robot in order to make the development project a success.

'Different stage'

In 2011, Hayashi was enrolled in SoftBank Academia, a future leader development program launched by SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son in 2010. Hayashi was among the first students from outside SoftBank.

     In 2012, Son asked Hayashi to come to SoftBank as the development team leader of the Pepper project, in recognition of his excellent showing at SoftBank Academia, the company's in-house training school that aims to groom the next generation of company leaders.

     Hayashi initially feared that he might not be able to do a good job at SoftBank, because he had no experience in robot development.

     But Hayashi eventually decided to quit Toyota, where he had worked for more than 10 years after finishing graduate school, and joined SoftBank, seeking greater challenges.

     Hayashi then spent three and a half years at SoftBank devoting his energy to the development of the Pepper robot. He left the company in September 2015 following the release of the Pepper robot in June 2015.

     After the Pepper robot hit the market, Hayashi began to consider leaving SoftBank. He said he wanted to "go to a different stage by founding a company."

     He had already begun to harbor a desire to found a company when he was studying at SoftBank Academia.

     Hayashi said that, when he conveyed to Son his intention to quit SoftBank, the billionaire gave him a pep talk and asked him to keep in touch.

     Hayashi was confident that after leaving SoftBank he would be able to make full use of his experience and expertise accumulated as the development team leader of the Pepper project.

Securing funds

Hayashi announced his decision to quit SoftBank on his Facebook page in August 2015, and he was approached by many manufacturers both at home and abroad wishing to hire him.

     But Hayashi was already determined to realize his own vision for the future. While he was engaged in the development of the Pepper robot, he strongly felt that robots have great potential.

     Several months after launching GROOVE X, Hayashi still faces a bumpy road ahead as he seeks to secure a huge amount of funds, as well as fellow engineers, needed for the new robot development project.

     Developing Pepper robot cost some 35 billion yen ($308 million), while AIBO cost around 25 billion yen.

     GROOVE X estimates the cost of its new robot development project at several billion yen. The venture company has so far managed to secure several hundred million yen from investors, including the Japan unit of U.S.-based venture capital fund Global Catalyst Partners.

     The X in the venture company's name is partly in homage to SpaceX, the U.S.-based aerospace venture. Developing a robot is "probably much easier than space transportation," Hayashi said. "We are feeling somewhat nervous, but we do not want to forget naivete."

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