Where Einstein Meets Edison

Big Inventions from Small Ideas: Interview with iRobot’s Colin Angle

Big Inventions from Small Ideas: Interview with iRobot’s Colin Angle

Jan 24, 2011

Renowned roboticist and inventor, Colin Angle, is co-founder, CEO and Chairman of the Board of iRobot, maker of the iconic Roomba vacuum cleaner, bomb-defusing PackBot, and many other products that have revolutionized life from living rooms to battlefields. He started iRobot midway through his doctoral program after earning a BS in electrical engineering and MS in computer science from MIT, and managed to incubate and grow the company without initial VC backing. Today, iRobot is a $300 million publicly-traded company that thrives on bringing innovative ideas to market and solving real world problems. 


MITER: You’ve said your dream was to build a company that can really change the world. How is iRobot fulfilling your dream?


COLIN ANGLE: In more ways than I could have hoped. Our early work on small robots to explore other planets helped shift NASA’s focus to radically smaller rovers than they had been working on and led to Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity. Our Roomba robot floor vacuum has changed people’s perceptions of what a robot is and can be. With over five million sold, the Roomba is making people’s lives all over the world a bit easier!


MITER: Statistically, it’s very difficult to replicate the “lab-to-market” success of iRobot. How did you and your co-founders do it?


COLIN ANGLE: By focusing on developing technology that enables a whole new class of products (i.e., robots) and answering the driving needs of customers. Robots are not a singular point solution for one problem, but a class of general purpose technology that can be used in many places. By staying true to both of the above ideas, we can continue to innovate and deliver successful products.


MITER: You said you consider yourself "sufficiently crazy to try new things." Is this an important characteristic of entrepreneurship? If so, can you give a personal example?


COLIN ANGLE: If you are not willing to take carefully considered risks, change your role in the company as the company grows, and do what is needed, even if it is unpleasant, you are going to have a hard time with entrepreneurship unless you are very lucky! We kept looking for new, long term applications for robots, even after failing to find ones ten years after we started. That might seem extreme, but that’s what it took for us to succeed.


MITER: As iRobot has grown into a large public company, is it difficult to balance the interests of your shareholders with scientific and/or altruistic impulses?


COLIN ANGLE: There are certainly more ideas than we can afford to pursue, but part of the plan for helping to usher in the robot age is showing that it is not only cool, but also good business. By making some money, we can generate resources to acquire key technologies or products to add to our portfolio. By showing the world that robots are good business, we encourage others to join the space and help build out the industry. So, there are certainly limitations to being a public company, but these limitations are compatible with our mission.


MITER: How has your role in the company changed since the beginning?


COLIN ANGLE: I often joke that my role changes every six months. In the beginning, I did a lot of soldering. Now I do a lot of communicating to investors and employees. In the beginning, I was physically building robots, now I’m focused on building a company that builds robots. Luckily, I have grown with the company and still love what I do!


MITER: What major setbacks, if any, did you encounter while building iRobot and how did you overcome them?


COLIN ANGLE: Not sure your article could be long enough to capture all of them! We were not VC backed in the beginning, so cash flow was always a problem. In fact, we went six years never having enough cash in the bank at the start of a given month to make payroll at the end of the month. That taught us to be incredibly careful with how we spent money and have multiple plans for how we would bring in cash. As a result, we never missed payroll, and our employees felt confident the company was stable. We also entered and exited over 18 different product lines before finding economic success with Roomba and PackBot!


MITER: Is there any skill or discipline you wish you had learned before starting iRobot?


COLIN ANGLE: I think iRobot would have benefitted and moved more quickly to success if I had a greater appreciation for understanding customer needs, both what they need and what they don’t. Not something that comes naturally to engineers!


MITER: How does interaction with customers help you define iRobot as a company?


COLIN ANGLE: Our goal is to make robots that solve real problems, so our robots can deliver real value to our customers. If Roomba had great intelligence and navigational ability, but didn’t clean all the way up to the edges of your room, then it would be a very limited and thus unsuccessful product. In the end, robots either do the job or they don’t, and it’s the customers who get to vote. We exist to serve them. Not the other way around.


MITER: How does iRobot today compare to your original vision for the company?


COLIN ANGLE: It still seems like we are just getting started. The opportunity and potential for robots is SO big. I’ve been at it for 20 years and I can’t imagine doing anything else.


MITER: You’ve said, “Small efforts can change the world.” How has this worked in your life?


COLIN ANGLE: I’m constantly surprised by the impact we have. We are just one company. Most recently, we have launched programs to help inspire kids to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math careers by exposing them to robotics. Now, we have a National Robotics Week and tens of thousands of kids last year got excited about science who may not have before, all germinating from the notion, “Hey, this is a good idea, let’s try it!” 


MITER: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who aspire to be positive change agents?


COLIN ANGLE: Know why you are doing it, because it can be a long road. It can also be one of the most rewarding things you ever do.

Grace Young


Grace Young is an undergraduate at MIT majoring in ocean engineering, with interests in robotics, physics, computer science, and architecture. Last summer she worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution building autonomous aircraft for ocean surveying. The summer before she worked at CERN, the large hadron collider, developing software for particle physicists, and at the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Cybernetics Lab in Boston applying statistical methods for bioinformatics. Her other work experience includes quantum computing research at The Joint Quantum Institute and analysis of electrical properties of carbon nanotubes at Johns Hopkins. She is a member of MIT’s varsity sailing team, Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, and Arts Scholar Program. She is also the 2012-2013 recipient of MIT’s Robert Bruce Wallace Academic Prize in Ocean Engineering.