Robot maker’s fortune built on a simple idea

/ Source: CNBC

In the popular 60s sci-fi cartoon series, "The Jetsons," the family maid, Rosie the Robot, was the stuff of futuristic fantasy.

Not anymore. If you think robots are the stuff of science fiction, try telling that to the man who’s made a fortune building them.

Colin Angle is CEO of iRobot, the company that came up with a round, rolling creation called the Roomba. Barely three inches high and 13 inches across, this robot knows how to clean.

And, according to Angle, a Roomba has a lot on its mind when it does its job.

“Am I doing the same thing over and over again?” he said, describing the way the Roomba thinks. “Because I'm in some kind of small area box and I need to figure out how to escape? Or have I just ingested a wire or tassels on a rug, and I need to put that back down and continue? Or am I nearing the end of my battery life, and should I go back and look for my docking station? So it's constantly asking itself these questions.”

It takes brains to invent something with a mind of its own. Angle says it all started in 1991 when his thesis as an undergraduate at MIT — a six-legged walking robot named Genghis — launched him on a life-long journey to make cool robots.

“After completing it, it was, ‘Okay, what's next?’” he said. “What is the coolest next robot I might do?"

Angle set up shop in his living room with a college friend, their robotics professor, and a pile of credit card debt.

“The challenge was always making ends meet,” he said. “And it really turned into a 24-hour-a-day sort of thing. I was eating, sleeping, or building robots.”

Whenever Angle told people about his robot start-up company he always got the same response.

“’Oh, so when are you going to clean my floors?’" he said. “Because they'd all heard about Rosie the Robot from 'The Jetsons.' That's what they wanted. And I'd say, "Well, how much are you willing to pay? $5,000?’ They'd say, ‘No, no, no. Have a good day.’ So that we knew that there was a price. And that's why it took so long.”

After 12 years of tinkering, Angle and his team came up with the Roomba.

At a price of just $200, it was the first affordable consumer robot. A few days after the 2002 launch, Angle got a call from a buyer.

“And she said, ‘I have a question for you: How many more Roombas do you think you can build between now and the end of the year?’" said Angel. “And I told her the number. And she said, ‘Okay, we want all of them.’ And that was this 'Yes!' kind of moment when we knew we had something special.”

IRobot is onto something big. Their 2005 initial public offering of stock turned Angle and his two co-founders into multimillionaires — and that was just the beginning.

To date the company has sold over 3 million Roombas – but they’re not just cleaning house. They’ve also sold over 1,400 bomb disposal robots called Pakbots. It may look like fun and games, but for Angle, there’s still plenty of work ahead.

“When I think about how much we've accomplished, and I think about have we achieved the goals of creating an industry of practical robots, I could say, well, we've made a start,” he said. “But there's so much more to do, that I don't feel like I'm done. I don't feel like I'm close.

Though the company's stock has had its ups and downs, Angle says the future is bright. Some analysts are predicting that the market for home robots will grow to a $15 billion business by 2015.