June 30, 2015      

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently talked with robotics entrepreneur Helen Greiner. Inspired as a child by Star Wars, Greiner is an MIT graduate, one of three co-founders of iRobot Corp., and founder and CEO of CyPhy Works.

At iRobot, which is best known for the Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner, Greiner also led the company into the military market with the PackBot. Danvers, Mass.-based CyPhy Works sells the tethered PARC aerial reconnaissance vehicle and the small PocketFlyer drone.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until July 31, 2015. Here’s a quick preview:

Pransky: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Greiner: One of the most difficult times for me was when we had raised money in the year 2000 to develop and bring to market an Internet-connected robot. Consumer products were, at this time, much, much harder to raise money for.

CyPhy Works' PocketFlyer

CyPhy Works’ small PocketFlyer drone

CyPhy Works’ small PocketFlyer drone

We failed because we had a price point that was too high for a consumer product. Our price was coming out at around $5,000, which is a lot of money.

Additionally, the Internet technology wasn’t ready yet, and it wasn’t consumer-friendly. Consumers didn’t yet have always-on Wi-Fi connections.

The one thing I learned is it’s not just about the great idea. It’s about the timing. Companies today such as Double Robotics, Suitable Technologies, and VGo are now making Internet-connected robots and getting some great products to people.

I just wanted to do it too early. We couldn’t have succeeded at that time, as we were at least a decade ahead of the market, and I just didn’t know it then.

As that project started to go forward, it was obvious to me that we weren’t going to be able to do what we said we were going to do. I had to explain to the board of directors why we had spent this money.

Fortunately, I had raised about $5 million and only spent a small part of it on the Internet-connected robot, and we put the rest into building the Roomba, which was very successful.

Pransky: You’ve had an extremely illustrious career, but if you were to start over, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Greiner: It’s hard to say because it worked out so well. IRobot was my dream come true when we got 10 million Roombas into people’s hands. But I am most proud of the military robots have saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of civilians.

If we took a different path, that might not have happened. However, we started out without a solid business plan and without really looking at the markets.

I might have even considered staying for my Ph.D. because the first five years we were doing iRobot was much like getting a Ph.D. in robot development. Both Colin Angle and I were signed up for the Ph.D. program but didn’t start it. We dropped it after our master’s degrees because we wanted to start iRobot.

But I would advise others to have a real business plan. Show it to people who have experience. Listen to their advice, but recognize that your vision may be different and better. You have to make your own decisions.

Pransky: Especially as the presidential ambassador for global entrepreneurship, what do you think Ph.D.s and Master of Engineering students should be doing while in school to prepare them best for the commercial side of robotics?

Greiner: It’s actually easier today than when we were in school because of the entrepreneurship programs available today. I would say definitely sign-up for entrepreneurship programs. There are a lot of incubators associated with schools. Those are excellent programs. Going and hanging out with other entrepreneurs is a key step because it changes the way you think. It makes you less risk-averse.

My other advice would be to do it early in your life, if possible. People are onboard with that more today than when we started iRobot in 1990. If you can do it early, you won’t have mortgage payments, you probably don’t have kids, you may not have a full-time significant other, etc. You’ll have more freedom to do the kind of hours and sweat equity that a start-up takes.

In this country, I believe, and one of the advantages we have, is if you go out and try it and you fail, it’s not shameful. It’s a badge of honor. You have to have a mind-set where failures are just another part of the experience. You can get yourself up, dust yourself off, and then proceed from there….

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