How Colin Angle defines success has shifted over the past three decades as his company grew. If someone had shown him the current iteration of iRobot back in 1990, he “would be both disappointed and excited to figure out where iRobot has ended up,” he says. “It’s definitely nothing like I had imagined when we started the company.”
Back then, he thought that in 30 years, the company could be creating “jetpacks, flying cars, and Rosie the Robot” maid from the futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons.” But while he admits this may have sounded like a disappointing direction for the company, what he’s come to realize is the true impact of his work.
“Robots are mainstream now, and the Roomba is the number one selling vacuum cleaner in the country, which I would have never predicted,” he says. “Things take time, and change and innovation takes time. The key is to figure out how to enjoy the journey and be successful as you traverse that which is possible.”
Angle is the CEO and co-founder of iRobot, where he has spent the last 30 years developing consumer-facing robots for home use. In a conversation with InnoLead, he discusses success and failure. Takeaways from the conversation follow.
Finding Success With an Unconventional Path
Typically, innovation is born out of necessity. Entrepreneurs identify a problem, and then spend time testing solutions until they find the right one. Angle took a different approach to founding iRobot.
“We founded the company based on the promise that we were supposed to have robots and ‘I’m not satisfied that I can see robots in movies. We need them in our lives.’ In the early days of iRobot, we made this…broad exploration of where [robots could] create value,” he explains.
This exploration led to one of the company’s first successful robots, PackBot, which now looks like it may be more at home in a science fiction movie than in a store next to a Roomba. “This was a very exciting robot because it showed the world that you could actually make a very durable robot that could do things like climb stairs. This robot, if you dropped it off the second story building, it would survive. You could immerse it in water. So, some of the early applications we actually got paid for were applications of going to dangerous places that only a robot could do.”
According to Angle, thousands of these robots were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to defuse bombs, and about half a million dollars worth of robots were donated to Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Originally, the robots came equipped with complicated controllers (“which were engineering marvels”), but which dissauded soldiers from using them regularly. The team at iRobot solved this problem by making the controller more like a PlayStation controller, “and suddenly these robots were indispensable.”
“iRobot’s story is a systematic journey from being purely about doing what’s cool, to trying to listen hard and do what people actually want,” he says.
Hitting its Stride in Consumer Robotics
In 2000, after seeing levels of success from robots built to diffuse bombs and head into war zones, iRobot partnered with toy giant Hasbro for a surprising release: My Real Baby. The product was a baby doll — and also “one of the most advanced robots ever to make it to the consumer market,” according to an article anticipating its release. What was remarkable about the doll was its ability to emote; it could be happy, or sad (and in the prototyping phase, it could be angry, too, but Hasbro asked iRobot to remove the anger feature, Angle says).
While the product was technologically advanced, it wasn’t a complete home-run for either company. “This was a product where reviewers wrote… ‘It’s remarkable that iRobot and Hasbro would have the courage to launch such an ugly baby.'”
But its creation signaled an internal shift at iRobot. Before My Real Baby, Angle had not worked on making robotics affordable for consumers. “Up until this time, we were building bomb-disposal robots. We were using processors that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars… If we were going to ever succeed at that original funding goal — robots in each one of our lives — we needed to figure out how to make robots, and robot technology more affordable.”