Keynote speaker: Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of the board of iRobot. You may have heard of their most popular product, Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. They've sold a million units. [Congrats ACC, it's rare to see a woman as the opening keynote at a technology conference.]
I'm going to talk about business mechanisms to accelerate change. First ten years we didn't even talk to venture capitalists - we were busy inventing the technology.
Robotics is not like a lot of other industries in terms of capital available and technical drivers. Our uber-mission at iRobot is "freedom from tedious and dangerous jobs."
We are creating a new industry in commercial robotics. We believe it's a technology trend for the next ten years - not just for vacuums. From tractors to construction equipment to automobiles. Our vision in domestic arena is to make household chores history. Dusting, window washing, bathroom cleaning. We've been building robots as a company since 1990 with mixed results - it takes a lot of experimentation and innovation - including business models. We need to take advantage of other innovations also - not just those within our own company.
Mechanisms to Accelerate Change that iRobot has employed include:
Capital. Although robotics is a difficult area to raise venture capital in.
Government sponsored research. So we also looked at other ways to raise money. We worked with DARPA to build robots to help Marines avoid going into dangerous situations. For instance, PackBots are used in cave clearing. They don't know what's in there - perhaps a land mine or weapon caches. They are using robots to see what's there first and then go in.
Tech transfer from university research. We partner with universities on research. We doing work on swarm intelligence - for instance, a swarm of 120 robots all working together and autonomously cooperating. In one case, the robots as a group are told to find specific orange items and eventually through biologically-inspired - i.e. ant colony pheromones - algorithms when one finds the orange object they all do. Now imagine instead of a benign orange object that they are told to locate a chemical spill or a land mine.
Tech transfer from research labs. A naval lab has used their robots in research on simultaneous localization and mapping.
Taking advantage of exploding exponentials. How can the robot be more intelligent and efficient through advances in other technology?
Intel, AMD, Freescale computer chips are innovating quickly. A lot of changes in: personal storage, price of gene manipulation, wireless bandwidth and range, to the home "wired" bandwidth, backbone bandwidth, cameras in the environment, speech vocabulary recognition, power supplies, etc.
OEMs in the field.
Strategic relationships. An example is in 1998 we started working in the toy industry. We were proud to have prototypes in the $200 range. That is until we started to talk to toy industry folks and they thought we were insane. We learned from our toy industry partners to achieve a price point closer to $20.
We also partnered with John Deere for applications in industrial equipment and vehicles. You can learn a lot from folks in different industries with different core competencies. [The book, The Medici Effect states that innovation comes at the "Intersection" - i.e. where two or more different fields meet - so this sounds like a great strategy.]
New applications. We didn't start out as a vacuum cleaner company or a defense company, but as a robotic company. For instance, there are shifts in demographics toward an older population but there are not enough care-giving to go around. Can robots help people be more independent? Also telemedicine.