by Kristin Burnham

5 Things iRobot President Helen Greiner Has Learned About Innovation

Aug 27, 20083 mins

Helen Greiner is president and cofounder of iRobot, a company that invents military and household robots. Innovation, she says, is the essence of her business.

To innovate successfully, you need a culture of empowerment.

Our most successful product, the Roomba, a robot that vacuums, stemmed from an idea that a group of employees had. They approached us with this idea, we backed it and now millions of units have sold. Today, we hold internal contests allowing our employees to innovate and present their inventions to the top management team. In fact, our newest product, a robot that cleans gutters, is the result of an innovation contest.

Diversity in the workplace leads to diversity in ideas.

The project manager for the Roomba 500 series was an Islamic refugee from Bosnia. She said, “We are going to build the robot that I need to clean up after my 2-year- old twins.” She looked at the usability and product attributes differently than most men on the team. Because we’re looking for new approaches and new ideas, diversity of background, perspective and cultural experience is important.

It’s not about me, it’s about you.

I always wanted to build an Internet-connected Robot (read “New Household Robot Promises to Make Virtual Visits Easy”). In 2000, we tried to get one to market with a selling price of $2,500. I knew I was willing to pay a few thousand dollars for a robot—and I knew other robot enthusiasts like me would be willing, too—but at that time, there just wasn’t enough interest. Eight years later, though, we’ve created a different Internet-connected robot with many of the same capabilities but selling at a fraction of the cost. It’s become a reality because we focused on the right things: pricing, functionality and the end user.

I take pride in our inventions.

Our PackBot—a robot that detonates roadside bombs for the military—holds a special place in my heart. I have worked closely with the armed services for the past 20 years and have gained a very clear understanding of the risks our soldiers take every day. I have shaken hands with men and women who credit our PackBot with saving the lives of their teammates. It’s rewarding and motivating, and we continue to learn from them and work on inventions that will help with their missions. Our robots are truly making a difference in their everyday lives.

I never met a robot I didn’t like.

R2D2 from Star Wars first inspired me to build robots. I’ve always believed that robots will be a part of our lives, and this belief kept me going through a lot of ups and downs—especially when we were living contract to contract and the stress was high.