By: Zach Driver | September 3, 2019
Laura Boccanfuso describes her start-up, Van Robotics, as a leap of faith that challenged her and her family, but it was a passion for helping the most vulnerable of students that guaranteed she’d land comfortably on her feet.
The Ph.D. student turned CEO finished her doctorate in computer science at South Carolina in 2014. Boccanfuso then continued her research at Yale University, focusing on special needs children and their interaction with technology.
“I realized that there was a real lack in the community and the marketplace of affordable technologies that could be used to intervene in these kids’ lives at an early age,” said Boccanfuso. “So, I decided in my last year at Yale to take the plunge, take the leap and start a start-up.”
Just like that, Van Robotics and the tutoring robot Abii were born. Boccanfuso packed up her family and moved the new company hundreds of miles from Connecticut to South Carolina, where they set up shop at the UofSC Columbia Technology Incubator.
“The incubator provides many programs for start-ups,” she said. “They have all kinds of meetings, workshops and activities that they provide for helping companies learn the things they need to learn along the way. You get to form relationships with people who are going along with the same stage of business.”
Less than two years after her conception, ABii is now ready for her big debut. Van Robotics plans to launch sales of the robot in September mainly to schools here in South Carolina and across the country and to groups like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs.
“Our objective is to provide robots to every student who could use a little one-on-one help,” said Boccanfuso. “Eventually, we’d love to be able to sell them directly to those consumers who see the value of the robot being used in their schools.”
ABii uses AI technology to track a student’s performance and is paired with software that delivers standards-aligned curriculum. She even dances with the students after completing a lesson.
Boccanfuso says she’s gotten lots of feedback throughout user trials that the robot helps students who might be shy in a typical classroom setting.
“They said it’s great for students who might not have a lot of confidence in the subject,” she explained. “We’ve also heard they feel less judged by the robot.”
Van Robotics isn’t deaf to the burdens facing educators in South Carolina and across the United States. Boccanfuso hopes teachers will embrace the technology and feel supported by the company.
“The kinds of intuitive adaptions that the teacher can do in the classroom is what makes them the experts,” she said. “That’s why the robots will always be an augmentative tool and not a replacement.”
With ABii’s launch just around the corner, Boccanfuso is proud to be back in South Carolina and fulfilling her dream.
“This state and USC hold a special place in our hearts,” she said. “As a person who left the state and came back, you have an appreciation for all the things that Columbia offers. It was wonderful coming back.”