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Many technology companies maintain a dual-use strategy developing products for both the military and civilian sectors. The case of iRobot, which developed the little robot vacuum Roomba, reflects the dilemmas involved in the oscillation between these two realms.
Co-founder Colin Angle told nymag.com how he made the decision to divest from military projects, the difficulty in finding a new home for the defense division.
iRobot was founded in 1990. In the early years, Roomba was unprofitable, and the majority of the profits actually came in from military and defense contracts. The product that they’re most known for, the Roomba, came along only 12 years after. Its development was a long journey.
At first, the company was working with the military. One early project was building an underwater walking robot that could detect mines in the surf zone.
In 2002, they both launched the Roomba and sent their robots to Afghanistan. The military robots were instantly profitable, he said, they brought in something like $160 million in revenue and funded the company quite effectively.
Meanwhile, Roomba didn’t make any money for a few years, because they still had to learn how to manufacture, distribute, and support the robots. During this time,100 percent of their profitability was coming from the business in defense with the government.
The company continued to work on both channels also after going public in 2005, “because the synergies between the kinds of robots we build for consumers and the robots that we build for defense were very real.”
At what stage iRobot divested itself its military and defense work to focus on robots for the home? Over the years, the supplemental military budget went away, so the revenue from the military went from $160 million down to $55 million. Competition in the defense business on the robot side was increasing and the next steps were getting expensive.
The competition was increasing also in the Roomba market. They had to prioritize one of these business units over the other.
In 2014, they recognized that these were two very different businesses, and realized that they couldn’t invest in both home electronics and defense.
Their achievements in the military track were significant. During the Gulf War, they saved thousands of lives using the robots to defuse bombs and render IEDs safe. They used defense tech to explore the Great Pyramid in Giza, sent a PackBot to map radiation levels after the Fukushima disaster. With the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster, they sent defense underwater robots to identify these giant subsurface pools of oil that were going to create a long-term ecological disaster. “The idea that we could go out and have a real positive, chest-thumping impact on the world by deploying our technology, that was pretty central to why people felt good about being at iRobot.”
Finally, iRobot spinned out their defense business and relaunch it, as a startup again. Endeavor Robotics, the new defense business, is thriving today, and iRobot’s focus on the home market meant that in 2017, consumer growth quadrupled.