March 03, 2010      

Neato Robotics, a start-up based in Silicon Valley, recently emerged as a new player in the consumer robotics market. The company grew out of a Stanford University business plan competition entry in 2005, in which two students developed a concept for a self-localizing multifunctional floor cleaning robot. In 2006 they filed a patent for a robot with replaceable cleaning modules, gathered angel investments, and brought on technical advisers in robotics. Three years later they announced their first product: the XV-11 vacuuming robot.

Roomba Competitor
The $399 XV-11 is positioned as a competitor primarily to iRobot Corp.’s Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, but it differs in several key technical areas. While the Roomba navigates its way around a room using bump sensors, limited behaviors such as wall-following, and an overall random walk algorithm that causes it to cover the room in multiple passes, the XV-11 uses a cheap laser range finder to map the room it is cleaning and a simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithm to cover the room as quickly as possible. In this respect, the XV-11 is similar to Evolution Robotics’ newly released Mint floor cleaner.

The Roomba is circular, while the XV-11 is “D” shaped, with a flat edge in the front. Both companies claim their mechanical design is optimized for cleaning corners and edges, though Neato Robotics also claims the flat edge makes the robot’s self-localization easier. Regardless, in the similarly priced XV-11, iRobot’s Roomba has a direct competitor-perhaps its first. Most other robotic vacuum cleaners fall into two camps: expensive products from Europe, Korea, and Japan; and inexpensive Roomba knockoffs emanating from China.

Neato Robotics has an interesting opportunity in its laser range finding sensor, which it developed internally. This cheap sensor not only differentiates the company from its competitors, but would be an attractive item for robot hobbyists, researchers, and students for whom localization sensors are often prohibitively expensive. Producing these sensors commercially at high volume could help Neato Robotics’ margins on the XV-11. However, the company has indicated it is holding off on commercializing the sensor to avoid distracting it from robotic product development.

Silicon Valley, Venture Funded
Neato Robotics is venture backed thanks to a $15 million Series B round led by Silicon Valley-based Noventi Ventures and joined by a variety of Asian investors. The 25 employees, mostly engineers, are not limited to those with backgrounds in robotics. The company’s leadership team in particular has years of experience in consumer product development and marketing at companies such as Logitech and Samsung.

By positioning itself as a consumer product company rather than a robotics company, Neato Robotics is taking a markedly different approach from its closest competitors. Patrick De Neale, vice president for business development at Neato Robotics, indicated that the company was unsure for a long time whether or not to even include the word “Robotics” in its name.

Consumer robots in the U.S. to date-mostly toys and cleaning robots-have faced problems with customer service, reliability, and a truly compelling offering of convenience or quality once the novelty of the product has worn off. Some analysts suggest this is due to overemphasis on robotics as a technology, requiring a good deal more of technical hand-holding compared with other classes of consumer products. Neato Robotics is hoping that the key to grabbing the consumer market is to address these business and high-level design issues first and robotics technology second.

In the style of most consumer electronics companies, Neato Robotics is manufacturing in southern China. The company is currently only offering the XV-11 and its spare parts for direct sale on its website, but Neato Robotics is also likely to start distribution through online and brick-and-mortar vendors such as Amazon, Target, and Wal-Mart once the XV-11 is shown to be a viable product.

Though Neato Robotics has not revealed any plans for additional products, its patent and early development work indicate a likelihood for the company to trend toward a multifunction modular robot, rather than distinct products for every different function. Additionally, Neato’s core SLAM technology is extensible to robot navigation not just on floors, but on walls, in bathtubs, or anywhere else in the house-opening up myriad possibilities for addressing unpopular household chores.

With a compelling entry into the robotic vacuum market, a versatile core navigation technology, and a unique approach to mass-market consumer robots, Neato Robotics will be a key player in the next generation of home and personal robots.

The Bottom Line
Neato Robotics is the most recent entrant into the U.S. consumer robotics market. The venture-backed start-up has announced its first product, a vacuuming robot, based around a simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithm and proprietary laser range finder to improve floor cleaning efficiency compared with existing products. Neato is intentionally positioning itself as a consumer products company, not a robotics company, in contrast to its American competitors, and is leveraging the experience of a team with consumer product development experience–rather than purely roboticists–to do so.