iRobot makes robots that make a difference, with the help of SBIR-funded research. “The biggest challenge for a technology company is the difference between a demonstration and a product,” says Colin Angle, co-founder of iRobot. “You can make a robot demonstration that will work for 10 minutes before it breaks. A robot product is designed to work for years and years, and take a lot of abuse. That’s why it’s incredibly challenging.”
Angle and his co-founder and fellow MIT roboticist Helen Greiner took on this challenge when they founded iRobot in 1990. “The company was founded 20 years ago based on the premise that it was about time that practical robots existed,” says Angle. “We’d been dreaming about practical robots ever since The Jetsons.”
Funding for their dream didn’t come from venture capital but rather from the SBIR Program, specifically through DARPA. “What we were trying to do was so risky that no rational investor would give us money,” recalls Angle. “The SBIR Program would listen because they were looking for innovative research.”
Robot’s flagship product for the government sector is the PacBot, a robot that performs bomb disposal and other dangerous missions for warfighters and first responders. “We’ve sold over 4,000 PacBot robots. We’ve had hundreds of robots in theater, doing missions, diffusing roadside bombs, and going into buildings,” says Angle. “I’m so proud that this idea we had has gone from ideation to research to fielding products to saving lives.”
SBIR awards supported 33 iRobot research initiatives, contributing more than $30 million in funding for the development of new sensors and enhancements to the robots’ capabilities. iRobot’s success is not limited to the government sector. Many people know them better for their home cleaning products, specifically the Roomba vacuum robot. SBIR funding allowed iRobot to build a talented staff of roboticists and develop the intellectual property that fueled their success in the consumer products industry as well.
Headquartered in Bedford, MA the company now employs more than 500 of the robot industry’s top professionals and has a market cap of over $700 million. The company and its founders, however, are driven by something far more important than the bottom line. Angle says, “Every time a robot is blown up, we save lives. Do we make a difference? Absolutely.”