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 $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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