Inside iRobot’s “Business-Driven” Strategy

By Scott Kirsner |  November 15, 2013

Angle 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.

Some highlights:

  • “One of the things that we believe very strongly is that, at least in robotics, the price of the solution is as important as the capabilities of the innovation. If you want to navigate indoors, it’s really easy to do if price isn’t an object. But if the price is $10, wow, that’s really hard.”
  • On business-driven innovation. “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.” One example he cites is AVA, which forced the company to improve the way robots can make maps of an environment. (AVA creates its own map of a building, and users can simply click a location on a tablet computer to have it move there.) “This business-driven innovation model says, it’s not innovation if it’s not in a product. The hardest problems in innovation come from reducing it to practice — getting it to work in real-world environments. You can’t get there doing demos. We view a lot of the innovation as happening in the product itself, as opposed to in the lab.”
  • “When [ideas are] so far off, they’re new and sexy and people want to work with them. And when you’re generating revenue with these ideas, it’s obvious. It’s shepherding the idea from the formative, feasibility stage through to product [that’s tough.] That’s the job of the CEO.””We have a long-term guidestar as to where we’re trying to go. That gets, ultimately, to general purpose, Rosie-the-Robot-like capabilities. Extending independent living at home [for the elderly is] an intermediate guidestar. Moving along that path is really hard. It takes tens, twenties, fifties of millions of dollars to create true innovation in the robot business. Very few organizations on the planet can drop that kind of money into a research lab, and have enough patience to see something come out the other side.”
  • Angle says he is an advocate of McKinsey’s “three horizons of growth” framework, spelled out in the book “The Alchemy of Growth.” For iRobot, he says, a Horizon 1 product is something that produces lots of revenue today, like its Roomba vacuum cleaner. Horizon 3 is an area of future opportunity, like robots that will enable seniors to remain in their homes longer and live independently. Horizon 2 is a product like AVA, the videoconferencing bot. It “has no revenue, but all the cost. It’s just a big, ugly, non-revenue producing, pimply, adolescent, cash-sucking thing that most companies are lethally effective at killing.” Angle says his job is to ensure such products can survive that adolescence, and get a chance to turn into big money-makers.

More: Below is a video clip of a new kind of robotic hand that is being developed in iRobot’s R&D lab, with some funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. iRobot’s products today don’t have very sophisticated grasping capabilities, but this offers a look at what’s on the way.