May 19, 2024

The Boss: Still Making the Cool Stuff

I thought boxes were the best toy. When my parents got a new car, I ran to my mother and said, “Did it come in a box?” Later I created conveyor systems to carry things from one side of the house to the other.

My parents divorced when I was 9, but they continued to support my projects. If I needed copper wire or more Legos, the items would magically appear. I also enjoyed the leadership aspect of organizing events like Ultimate Frisbee.

I learned to canoe at summer camp and thought I’d pursue Olympic whitewater canoeing. In my senior year of high school, I instead decided to attend M.I.T. I like to say I’ve had only two jobs in my life: whitewater canoeing instructor and wilderness guide in college, and C.E.O. of iRobot.

I started iRobot with a fellow M.I.T graduate, Helen Greiner, and our professor, Rodney Brooks, in 1990. (They’ve since started their own robotics companies, and we’re still good friends.) So I was a C.E.O. at 22.

You want to have a certain gravitas when you’re young and pioneering a product in a new space, but my business card read “C.E.O. and Professional Kid.” I realized that was a problem when an investment banker left our meeting 10 minutes after I handed the card to him. I didn’t close a lot of multinational deals in those years. By 30, I was taken more seriously.

Starting out, iRobot was not an economic rocket ship. It took six and a half years before we had enough money in the bank at the beginning of each month to make payroll. We always made it — we paid salaries at the end of the month and I always had four weeks to figure things out. So despite the risks I saw on a daily basis, our employees never worried.

The company has two divisions. Our home robots division makes the Roomba vacuum, which navigates a room and avoids obstacles while cleaning. And we just released the Scooba 230, which washes bathroom floors. Our government and industrial division makes robots for bomb disposal; iRobot now has over 4,000 of them in more than 25 countries.

We also make robots for undersea exploration. One battery charge lets our ultrahigh-endurance robot collect data undersea at extreme distances. After the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico last year, researchers hypothesized that there were plumes of oil beneath the water’s surface. Data from our Seaglider robots proved it. Recently we provided four robots to Japan for use in a damaged nuclear reactor.

It took 10 years to develop our first product, the Roomba, and we take the long view with our current effort to develop products to help the elderly live independently in their homes. Learning the health care industry will take time, but we’re facing huge demographic shifts, and there aren’t enough caregivers for an aging population. We already help people clean their homes, but we’re looking at robotic applications that could help monitor their safety and help them adhere to medication regimens, and so forth.

People tell me over and over what they want. If the same thing comes up again and again, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know we should produce it. Then we have to look at how to make a complicated robotic product that’s affordable and easy to use. But our mission has never changed: to build cool stuff, deliver great products, make money, have fun and change the world.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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