Ubooly, The Plush Toy With An iPhone Brain, Grabs $1.5M In Seed Funding

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Ubooly, A toy that uses Apple’s iPhone or iPod touch as a means to turn a cuddly plush into an interactive experience, today revealed to TechCrunch that it has raised a $1.5 million seed funding round, from investors including Jeff Clavier’s SoftTech, 500 Startups, David Cohen and more. The funding follows Ubooly’s successful Kickstarter campaign that funded an initial production run, and its participation in TechStars 2012 Boulder, and will help the team tackle their ambitious goal of providing an evolving digital experience to accompany a child’s physical toy.

The Ubooly, which began shipping just last week, is the brainchild of Colorado-based husband and wife team Carly Gloge and Isaac Squires, founders of design agency Warb. The two took to Kickstarter to prove their idea had legs, and that a toy that uses Apple’s mobile devices to provide interactive games, as well as speech recognition features could fly with consumers. The company passed its $25,000 goal, but the attention helped it attract more than just some initial pre-orders, including $335,000 in additional venture capital and a spot on The Founders: Season 3 web series, documenting TechStars Boulder’s 2012 class.

The team behind Ubooly is already putting the funding to good use, with engineering updates to Ubooly’s voice recognition to make it perform better with children specifically (I’ve used the app with a Ubooly plush, and find the recognition surprisingly accurate for adults already), and a new play mode for the Ubooly app that doesn’t require the physical toy to interact with the character. New contract writers have also been brought on board, to help meet the demanding update schedule the company has created for Ubooly: new content every two weeks.

One of the biggest perceived problems facing the Ubooly right now might be that it was designed with the iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S (and 4th gen iPod touch) in mind. The plush animal fits those devices tightly, with no real wiggle room, which means the extra vertical space on the iPhone 5 and 5th gen iPod touch won’t work with it (though new units are shipping with deeper pockets to compensate). But co-founder Carly Gloge argues that’s actually a big benefit for the device in the short-term.

“I think the iPhone 5 release will be significant for Ubooly,” she said. “There are now multiple generations of iPhones that are collecting in people’s drawers, and our users have expressed that Ubooly has been a fantastic way to reincarnate their old devices.”

The Ubooly team will look at supporting latest generation iOS, and even Android devices down the road, but for now, Gloge is likely right about capitalizing on the opportunity that exists in the market for devices not on the bleeding edge; kids often get hand-me down devices when parents upgrade, which translates to a stay of execution for children’s iOS accessories when it comes to issues of obsolescence like form factor changes and compatibility with new technologies.

There are others out there trying to do the same kind of thing that Ubooly is doing, including Totoya Creatures and Griffin’s Woogie, but Ubooly’s plan is arguably more ambitious. The startup wants to create an entire thriving ecosystem around their toy, with apps that not only learn and grow with a child, but also suit specific use cases. For example, there’s a GPS-tracking app in the works that provides a virtual tour guide experience for kids on vacation.

Initial interest has been strong, the founders tell me, and this money will help continue to spread the word and develop product. But content is the key piece of the equation that makes Ubooly special, and where that’s headed in terms of both volume and quantity will likely determine whether or not this Boulder-based startup has the next Furby on its hands.