i3 | July 24, 2018

iRobot Founder and CEO Colin Angle

Cindy Loffler Stevens
iRobot founder, Colin Angle

iRobot has its eye on the intuitive smart home of the future and is building an ecosystem of robots to help turn this vision into reality. The company began in the defense arena but today designs and builds consumer robots for the home, including a range of autonomous vacuum cleaners and mopping robots, most notably the Roomba that debuted in 2002.

Using its proprietary navigation software, robots like the Roomba can map a home’s floorplan, a feature that may someday enable connected devices in the Internet of Things (IoT) to more seamlessly work together, providing increased value for homeowners. iRobot is on track to cross the billion dollar revenue mark in 2018. With more than 1,000 employees, the company has sold more than 20 million robots.

Leading this global company is Founder and CEO Colin Angle. Colin created the company in 1990 with a fellow MIT graduate and professor. An early creation was a six-legged walking robot called Genghis that had an 8 bit microprocessor and 256 bytes of RAM. The company now maintains an impressive portfolio of more than 1,000 global patents, ranking #5 on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' "Patent Power Scorecard" in the electronics category.

In his spare time, Angle is an avid scuba diver, kiteboarder, sailor, snowboarder and white-water canoer, and was a wilderness guide during his school years. He says, “While I was a student at MIT, I was incredibly academic but at the end of the semester, I would hang it all up, take my canoe and go into the woods.” He recently spoke with i3 about how robotic mapping and the spatial information this technology provides can make smart homes even smarter and beneficial for all.

How did you begin the company?

We wanted to create robots that would make a difference and make practical robots a reality. We hadn’t yet figured out how to make robots helpful and affordable for consumers, so we were looking at other areas where robots could create value with multiple industries and applications.

Can you talk about your work with the Defense Department?

We were competing against some of the largest defense contractors. We won a seed contract to write a $120,000 proposal, but we also built a prototype of the robot. When we went in to pitch the concept and were told our approach was too simplistic and could never work, we said, “Well it actually does work,” and showed that it could climb stairs. We won the contract. It was a $5 million program to create what turned into the PackBot, which was deployed in Afghanistan to perform cave reconnaissance. That was the first combat mission that the U.S. military sent a ground robot on. We went on to ship more than 5,000 robots to Iraq and Afghanistan. These robots were responsible for saving thousands of lives. Developing these robots was a very important contribution that we are very proud to have made. It also turned into a very good business for iRobot. It allowed us to scale and work on new technologies, and it paid for a lot of the learning that we went through as we looked to develop robots for consumers. Our work in the defense space was fundamental to iRobot’s journey as a business. It was the first real, viable business that iRobot built, and it paid for much of the learning that led to the development of home robots.

Why did you get out of the defense business?

There came a moment when the potential for consumer robots was so large, that running a business that focused on both consumer robots and defense robots was not sustainable. You couldn’t justify spending on what was needed to make the military business succeed because you would be taking away from investing in the consumer business. The best alternative was to let it succeed by becoming its own independent company.

Are there opportunities for seniors in the smart home?

Long term, it is about elder care. We have a great opportunity to help the world in a new way by thinking about what we need our homes to do to enable people to live in them longer with robotic technology. It is a step by step mission, and we don’t have to do it all by ourselves.

What is needed for the smart home to work?

A smart home is a home that programs itself, that updates itself, and does the right thing automatically. This is possible, but there is a significant missing element today. Devices in our home don’t know where anything is. If you walk into a room and the lights are supposed to turn on, the heating is supposed to adjust itself and that show on TV is supposed to follow you when you move to another room – that is completely dependent on the understanding of what is where, and where the people are within the home. Because robots move around and carry sensors, they have an important role in helping the home understand itself.

How do voice assistants play into this?

They’re a part of the solution. We have been surprised since we integrated Roomba with Google Home and Amazon Alexa, how many people say, “Roomba, clean the house,” as opposed to pulling out their cell phone and pushing start. Voice is a very natural way to interact with your house, but without the context of where the things are, voice is limited in what it can do. As a house becomes more spatially aware of itself, there is more of a payoff to the consumer to have a connected device because it is more useable. With spatial understanding, we’ll see more value, and the promise of the smart home will be fulfilled.

What did you mean about designing a home inside out?

When people think about the smart home, it is a building into which we put our stuff, and then we use our smartphone to turn it on and off. Instead, think of the home as the system. The home has rooms, and the rooms have things in them. An AI understands where the people are, what they want to have happen, what sensors need to be detected, and what can be done physically to detect that. It can open and close windows, it can adjust the temperature and turn on the heater and AC units, so the idea is that the home is the system. Robots are among the most complex electromechanical physical devices, and by applying the same logic and technology that we use to design a robot, we can look at the smart home and say this is not an incredibly hard intractable problem. The home is a robot, so we need sensors, AI, actuators and software to make it so.

How can you ensure data is secure?

It starts with the company taking data security seriously. And a commitment that we are going to treat data collected by the robot in a way that is both transparent and puts the customer first. We design our products from the circuit board up with data security in mind. Privacy is meaningless if there is no data security. We treat your data as your property. We may give you options of things that you can do with your data that would be of value, but you are in control. Given the role that we expect to play in the home, it is very important that iRobot and our brand is synonymous with a strong commitment to doing the right thing so that we maintain a trusting relationship with our customers.

How do you get kids interested in STEM?

Education is another passion of mine. At iRobot, our community service initiative is around STEM education. Fifty percent of the employees at iRobot volunteer their time to go into schools, bring robots and inspire students to study the hard sciences. But we need to go deeper, take that spark of innovation and allow it to grow into a love of science. When people ask me for career advice, I say teach your children to code. Follow your passion but learn to code.

What do you see for the future of iRobot?

As iRobot has grown up, it has been exciting to grow as its founder, and go from someone who liked building robots to building a company that builds robots and now an industry that is changing the world. Twenty-eight years in, I feel like we are just getting started on what the opportunity truly is for robots in our lives. Robotics is a life’s work and a huge undertaking. iRobot spent more than $100 million last year on research and development, and we have increased that this year. With this, the opportunity that exists for robotics and the central role they will play in people’s lives is bright. I am super excited that this is what I get to do every day.

How did you develop the Roomba?

The algorithms that ran on the original Roombas, to ensure that they cleaned everywhere in a room, came from minehunting algorithms for the Department of Defense. The Roomba happened in year 12 of iRobot. It was a long journey. Last year, the number one selling vacuum cleaner in the U.S. was a Roomba.

July/August 2018 i3 Cover Issue

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