The iRobot Q&A: Colin Angle on the Next Robotics Inflection Point

8/28/12Follow @gthuang

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cost of the hospital. Ignoring completely all of the capital investment that people have in their own homes, the whole care network with your siblings and parents and children that is available. This type of technology ultimately will allow doctors and nurses to make house calls in a cost-effective fashion. Which will mean that you go to the hospital only if there’s something that only can be treated in the hospital. This will have massive impact on the cost of care and quality of care that patients enjoy. So I think this is a critical bit of technology. Especially as our aging demographic is going to be placing demands on our healthcare system. We need this stuff to exist. Hopefully we’re not too ahead of the curve. I don’t think we are, I think the curve is there right now if the products and technology and price points all line up. So, together with our partners, we’re on a path to create the systems required to deliver that future.

X: Of course, watching the robot move around and interact with its environment is still the most impressive thing, at first glance…

CA: If there was an appropriate price to live in your home, this would be the robot that met you at the door, talked to you, and would have speaker-independent voice recognition. You could convey your will to it, and its mission would be to activate Roomba, tell Roomba where to go, activate Scooba [floor-washing robot], tell Scooba where to go, and so forth. But you can see that it’s fast. You can step in front of it and do whatever you want to mess with it, and it will dynamically respond to what’s going on.

X: Let’s shift gears to broader issues. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the past 22 years?

CA: So much about the challenges that this industry faces is a recognition that it needs to be business-driven and not technology-driven. There is more technology than there are good business plans. So much of the work that we need to do as an industry is finding the places where the technology can actually create sufficient value to drive viable businesses. The Roomba was launched in 2002. From a technological perspective, it could have been launched earlier. The challenge was did anyone know and live and work through the business that allowed this system to be sufficiently easy to use at price points that retail distribution could support?

That challenge is still with us. This is a complete disaster and waste of money if you’re just doing it to create a cool demonstration. Whatever you do, you want to look at the business underpinnings. That doesn’t mean you only do what people say is a good business. With our healthcare initiatives, there are trends that we’re working towards. But we at least know we are attacking real problems, and if we can solve them we’re creating economic value.

If I had a firmer grasp of the business side when I started in 1990, we would have seen more progress more rapidly. We managed to survive long enough to develop an appreciation and a competence, and our mission—build cool stuff, deliver great product, make money, have fun, change the world—was unique back then because we explicitly talked about making money. Everything we did had that dimension to it. Ultimately that mission, and that statement of the mission, gave us the motivation and insight to actually do it and allowed us to make more progress.

X: So have things changed dramatically in the robotics industry, from a business standpoint?

CA: If you look at the robotics landscape today, it’s much richer and valuable robot businesses because more and more people are approaching it from the perspective of [here’s a] problem—solve it with robot technology—as opposed to, “Woo-hoo, look at my walking robot.” That’s great, that’s very exciting for me as a lifelong supporter of this industry. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a wall that doesn’t understand, but it is very gratifying to see the increase in quality of businesses out there today.

X: What were the most important inflection points in the company’s growth?

CA: The biggest inflection point in iRobot history was 2002. iRobot was basically flat. In 2002 we did $13 million of revenue. The year before we had done $10 or $11 million, and the year before that we’d done $10 or $11 million. We were doing this breadth-first exploration of value-creating opportunities for the robot industry. 2002 started with our first layoff in the company’s history, and ended with putting a robot into the Great Pyramid in Giza, launching Roomba, and sending PackBot to Afghanistan. We went from $13 million to $42 million in … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • hateroomba

    iRobot’s equipment is awful. The batteries run out in no time. A not-very-old roomba can only run for 10 minutes or so.

  • A Boston Woman in Robotics

    “In the end it’s refreshing to see that Angle, a tech celebrity and an iconic figure in Boston’s innovation scene, hasn’t lost his boyish love of robots. (None of these guys ever do.)” … or girls, and their girlish love of robots. Let’s not forget that iRobot’s cofounder was a woman who is now off building more robots.