iRobot Alumni Build Robot-Vacuum Accessories To Promote “Successful Cleaning Missions”

10/1/09Follow @wroush

Sometimes a robot just needs a little help from its friends. And now a pair of former iRobot engineers who lost their jobs in last year’s downsizing at the Bedford, MA, company have struck out on their own to help iRobot’s popular Roomba floor cleaning robots do their jobs better.

Launched in January, Robot Add-Ons introduced its first Roomba accessory just four months ago and already has 10 products in its catalog, from protective bumpers to hypoallergenic filters. Created by Jim Lynch, an electrical engineer who invented iRobot’s Looj gutter-cleaning robot, and Barry Stout, a software engineer who contributed to the Roomba’s internal programming, the Georgetown, MA, startup has a mission to help consumers get more out of their investment in a home robot.

Roombas are “really good at accomplishing one task, but there are a whole bunch of other tasks they can do really well if given the right accessories,” says Lynch.

Robot Add-Ons' "Unicorn" bumper extenderRobot Add-Ons is an entirely bootstrapped, self-funded operation—Lynch and Stout are handing everything, right down to filming product demonstration videos. All of the company’s products are available from its website and from other niche e-retailing sites for robot fans, and may eventually be available from the same stores that sell Roombas, such as Best Buy and Bed, Bath & Beyond. “The general marketing plan is to be wherever iRobot is,” says Stout. But even without a bricks-and-mortar outlet, sales are “doubling weekly,” he says.

Of course, iRobot itself (NASDAQ: IRBT) sells a line of Roomba accessories, including replacement brushes, filters, and batteries. So Robot Add-Ons is focusing on things iRobot doesn’t make—but maybe ought to.

Robot Add-Ons' "Green" cleaning pad“We’re trying to solve the everyday problems that people have with Roomba that prevent it from having a successful cleaning mission,” explains Lynch. “Like getting wedged under some furniture. If you walk in and there it is, stuck under the couch, then it hasn’t been very successful. We’re trying to help with the whole experience of owning a robot. That’s certainly a need I think we can fill.”

Robot Add-Ons’ product line includes a bumper extender that helps prevent the furniture-wedging problem; it’s a little horn, called the “Unicorn,” that makes the Roomba’s touch-sensitive bumper about an inch taller. There’s also a bumper pad that keeps the Roomba from scuffing furniture; three different types of cleaning pads that replace the Roomba’s main brush, making the vacuum more effective on hard floors; and a HEPA filter that traps smaller particles than those the Roomba’s own filter can catch.

Perhaps the most ingenious product is a “keep off mat,” which Roomba owners can place underneath easily jarred objects like dog bowls or plants. The mat’s black surface fools the Roomba’s built-in “cliff sensor” into thinking it’s about to topple over a stair step, sending it scurrying in another direction.

Of course, with their backgrounds in electrical and software engineering, Lynch and Stout have plans for more ambitious products down the road. “It’s in our nature to gravitate toward greater sophistication, and accessories that will really enhance the whole home-robot experience,” says Lynch. “But to start, we thought, ‘Let’s do something easy.’”

Robot Add-Ons' "Keep Off Mat" (under bowls)But even though Lynch and Stout have nearly 40 patents between them, they quickly learned that “nothing is easy,” Lynch says. For example, it took a long time just to find the right kinds of plastic for building attachments like the Unicorn and the bumper protector. “We use a complex blend of polymers that give [the products] just the right amount of flexibility,” Lynch says. And the company had to interview 10 filter manufacturers just to find one who could make a HEPA filter that would meet its standards, says Stout.

When I asked Stout and Lynch two of my standard questions for startups—whether they’re looking for outside investors, and whether the exit strategy for the company might involve acquisition, perhaps even by iRobot itself—I got some interesting answers. Let’s just say Stout and Lynch appear to be enjoying working for themselves.

Robot Add-Ons' furniture-protecting bumper“We’ve each had a boss at one time and it didn’t really work out,” says Lynch. “I think we are pretty mature product developers, and we’re gaining a lot of business experience. In some sense it’s really rewarding to be able to call the shots and see the rewards.”

As for the idea of rejoining iRobot, if the company were ever to decide that it needed to add on Robot Add-Ons’ products, Stout and Lynch are wary. They propose a slight twist. “I can’t see myself going back to iRobot as an employee,” Lynch says. “But if we were to become like a research arm of iRobot—an external company that develops products and proves them out and lets the survivors float to the surface where they can be acquired—that is an interesting concept.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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