Inside iRobot’s “business-driven” innovation strategy

ava500.jpgI stopped by to see some of the newest products at iRobot this week, and talk with chief executive and co-founder Colin Angle. The company makes an array of robots that can inspect nuclear reactors, investigate hostage situations, clean floors, remove leaves from gutters, and let you visit far-off facilities without hopping on a plane. The Massachusetts company generated $436 million in revenue in 2012, and it has about 500 employees. The company has sold more than 10 million consumer robots, the best known of which is the Roomba line of disc-shaped vacuum cleaners.

While there, I had a chance to use the company’s “telepresence” robot, the AVA 500, to remotely ramble through iRobot’s halls, and also got to toss a five-pound FirstLook robot, a rugged little tank-like device that is used for surveillance.

firstlookAngle says that iRobot is focused on innovation in three areas: helping robots get better at navigation (getting around different kinds of environments), manipulation (picking things up), and perception (understanding what is around them.) The company has about 50 employees who work in research and development, under chief technology officer Paolo Pirjanian, who is based in Santa Barbara, California. Angle told me Pirjanian frequently uses the AVA 500 bot to virtually visit headquarters.

In the conversation below, Angle talks about iRobot’s approach to “business-driven innovation.” He explains, “If I want to solve a technological problem, rather than just fund a research lab, I’ll start a business in that area, and build products that actually create value. It will be sustainable, because I can reinvest the profits from the business I’ve developed.” Angle also says that it’s commonplace for R&D employees to move into product groups “to finish the innovation.” Most interesting of all is how Angle views his own role as CEO: protecting ideas that have left the lab but aren’t yet producing substantial revenues, so that organizational antibodies don’t kill them.

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