Inside iRobot: A Search for Medical Droids

11/16/09

Robots have already found limited work in healthcare by assisting surgeons with operations and physical therapists with rehabilitating patients, among other jobs. So why can’t robots keep an eye on seniors and give them their medications?

Bedford, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) made headlines last month with the announcement of its recently created healthcare division, which is being headed by veteran software entrepreneur Tod Loofbourrow. The company’s ambitious plan is to develop a robot to help seniors live independently in their homes—something that no other company has accomplished. To learn more, I headed over to the firm’s headquarters last week.

The 7-year-old in me hoped to show up at iRobot and find the “medical droid” from Star Wars. But I knew not to expect to see such a humanoid robot, so I wasn’t disappointed when Loofbourrow told me that there were no healthcare robots to show me. Yet at one point during our interview, he flipped open his laptop and showed me a conceptual video of one of the company’s robots rolling over to an elderly person’s bedside and placing a bottle of pills on a side table. He said the video was intended to illustrate the company’s long-term vision for a healthcare robot, but the robot depicted was not a prototype of what the firm plans to market initially.

The senior citizen in the video, however, represented the first demographic iRobot aims to serve with a healthcare robot. There could be tremendous value in a robot that could help seniors live at home and avoid nursing homes, Loofbourrow explained, noting that the average nursing home in Massachusetts costs about $10,000 a month. Supporting patient care in the home may also help seniors avoid costly hospitalizations, which are a major factor in the whopping $2.4 trillion annual healthcare bill in the U.S. But the U.S. healthcare system hasn’t fully embraced using telemedicine—let alone robots—to enable patients to receive care in their homes.

Nevertheless, the leadership of iRobot decided that the time is right to launch a healthcare division, Loofbourrow said. The company has been interested in how its robots could be used to help patients for more than a decade. Indeed, company chairman and CEO Colin Angle told me back in 2006 that a robot for home healthcare was about three years from the market. And two years ago I spotted a concept robot the company developed called “CiCi” at a medical technology conference; an MIT robotics engineer told me for this Mass High Tech story that the stationary robot had two-way audio and remote-monitoring capabilities. Healthcare could eventually become a major business for iRobot, which already has succeeded in introducing robots like the Roomba for the household market and the PackBot for the military market.

“The company sees an opportunity to really transform a market,” Loofbourrow said. “So I’m here to build a very big business and a third leg of the stool for iRobot.”

Loofbourrow’s fascination with robotics dates back at least as far as his teenage years. As the Boston Globe‘s Scott Kirsner reported in his blog post last month, Loofbourrow was16 years old when he wrote a book called “How to Build a Computer-Controlled Robot” in the late-1970s. He explained that when he was a child, his father was an engineer at Bell Labs and their basement was filled with circuit boards and other parts for building robots. The robot he built around a single-board microprocessor featured voice recognition and ultrasonic navigation, he said.

The Harvard University graduate was most recently founder and CEO of Waltham, MA-based Authoria, a provider of talent management software that Loofbourrow grew into a $40 million annual business with more than 300 employees in the U.S., Europe, and India. He sold the company in 2008 to White Plains, NY-based Bedford Funding for … Next Page »

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  • Doug Stone

    I hope that the timing is right for this. I started a Geriatric Care Management business seven years ago that was trying to capitalize on this need. I closed it down because it was way too early.

    Depression era elderly are very resistant to spending on themselves and Baby Boomer adult children caring for them have a technology bias (technology is too hard to use).

    However with the wide acceptance of mobile technology and the iPhone as an example of user centered design – there is an opportunity to associate care robotics with mobile instead of the desktop computer.

    Just providing the capability for an adult care giver to remotely visit a person adamant to age in place is lifting a significant burden from them.

    By being able to virtually visit (and perhaps get some sensor readings of past activity) you can avoid a lot of hard to manage care issues like medication compliance, dehydration, nutrition and in-home hired care monitoring (stealing and physical/mental abuse).

    Watch for a partnering strategy – the iRobot brand alone may not be enough to overcome the barriers to purchase.

    Some logical partnerships could be with security companies or a cellular provider. Health Care or Health Insurance partnerships are also a possibility (as an option on the adult caregiver’s policy – not the elderly person’s).

    Vacuuming my house is really low involvement (emotional) and helping take care of my Mom/Dad is high involvement.

    Doug Stone
    VP of Innovation
    Maddock Douglas

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