Inside iRobot: A Search for Medical Droids

11/16/09

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$63.1 million (Authoria reportedly raised more than $100 million from private investors between 2000 and 2008). For the past six years, he said, he and Angle were on the same CEO forum. His conversations with Angle about joining the company occurred earlier this year, and he became the president of healthcare unit of iRobot in August.

IRobot hasn’t said when it will bring to market a robot for home healthcare. Loofbourrow said the company plans to work with top medical experts and understand the needs of seniors before it launches a product. He was mum about how many people are working for him at iRobot and exactly how much money and resources the company has committed to the healthcare business. Yet the simple fact that the company hired him to run the division and made a big public splash about its intentions in the healthcare business at the TEDMED conference in San Diego last month says that the firm is serious about the market.

Loofbourrow said he doesn’t believe there will be much competition from other robotics firms in the home healthcare market. (It’s true that no companies have successfully launched a home healthcare robot for mainstream use, but plenty of companies such as MobileRobots of Amherst, MA, and Santa Barbara, CA-based InTouch Health make robots for use in hospitals.) Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t any market hurdles for iRobot. Loofbourrow did not provide an estimate of how much the robots would cost, and it’s unclear to me whether seniors would feel comfortable having robots involved in their healthcare. Angle told me in a 2006 interview that a home healthcare robot would have to cost less than $1,000 to be affordable. At least initially, the company’s healthcare robots would most likely be paid for out of pocket by the seniors that use them or their children. (I think it goes without saying that Medicare and health insurers don’t pay for robots.)

Indeed, iRobot knows how difficult it can be to develop a robot for the home market. Despite its relative successes with the Roomba vacuuming and Scooba mopping robots, the company decided to forgo a full commercial launch of its ConnectR—a robot that people can control from their PCs that offers video and audio to virtually visit with loved ones—after it didn’t gain enough interest from in consumers in a limited market release of the robot in 2008. However, the company may be the best positioned to move into the healthcare market because of its expertise in manufacturing and marketing home robotics.

“Healthcare is a funny market; it’s one of the markets in which who pays, who benefits, and who uses it could be three different people,” Loofbourrow said. “So to do something right in healthcare you need to have a holistic plan that addresses all three of those things.”

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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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