PackBots, Roombas, and Now, Healthcare: The iRobot Story

9/12/12Follow @gthuang

Robots are in the air these days. They are also quite literally on the ground, in the water, and in many homes, businesses, warehouses, and manufacturing facilities. And they are making lots of money for their creators—something that would have been hard to believe just a few years ago.

One company, arguably, has done more than any other to bring robots to the business mainstream. Bedford, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) is the godfather of many of today’s robotics firms, and an epicenter of the commercial robotics industry in Boston, as well as nationally and worldwide.

After 22 years in operation—the last seven as a publicly traded company—iRobot’s impact is all around us. The company’s home robots (including the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which debuted in 2002) have sold more than 8 million units. The firm’s military robots, such as the PackBot, are famous for aiding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for helping out in disaster sites such as Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. The robot that first entered the Aurora, CO, shooter’s booby-trapped apartment in July was a PackBot (this fact wasn’t widely publicized). The robot that detected key underwater pools of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, thereby leading to a more comprehensive cleanup after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was an iRobot Seaglider. And so on.

What’s more, the company’s DNA can be found in many of the newer crop of startups around town. Rodney Brooks, the iRobot co-founder and longtime MIT professor, now leads Rethink Robotics, which is trying to reinvent U.S. manufacturing via safe, reliable, and cheap programmable robots. Helen Greiner, another iRobot co-founder and former chairman, is now CEO of CyPhy Works, a stealthy company working on flying robots (unmanned aerial vehicles). Former iRobot employees Joe Jones and Paul Sandin co-founded Harvest Automation, which is developing robots to perform manual labor, starting with agricultural applications in shrub farming. (We’ll hear from some of these folks below.)

It’s safe to say iRobot’s presence has helped create a thriving business community of roboticists that also includes the founders of area companies such as Boston Dynamics (known for its legged military robots and software), Kiva Systems (bought by Amazon for $775 million earlier this year), and Bluefin Robotics (another MIT spinout, now part of Battelle). And that has helped to make Boston the envy of Silicon Valley and other regions hoping to build a base of expertise in robotics.

Yet the 600-person company now finds itself at a crossroads. With massive uncertainty around the defense budget impacting its projected sales in a big way, iRobot has beefed up in other potential growth areas, most notably healthcare. And it has rededicated itself to innovative product lines for its consumer and home robots, while it also works on technologies that could come to fruition much further down the road.

How does the company view its broader mission and legacy? “When we started the business, we thought robots were cool,” says Colin Angle, the firm’s co-founder and CEO (see photo). “We thought that there was a neat business in building robotic products. I don’t think we felt the importance of the mission.” But over the years, the company learned that “it needs to be business driven and not technology driven,” Angle says. “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.” As for what lies ahead, he says, “Predicting the impact on the future is quite hard, but we have a mission to continue to drive and build the industry. I will tell you, rarely is it a boring day.” (You can read a detailed Q&A with Colin Angle on his lessons learned and challenges as leader of iRobot.)

On a recent visit to the company’s headquarters, … 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. Follow @gthuang

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