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As area robotics flourish, iRobot stays hands off on non-competes

Credit: File Photo

From before I officially started at the Hive, entrepreneurs and investors have repeatedly complained about particular legal impediment to innovation: Massachusetts’ relatively strict non-compete laws leave entrepreneurs in legal peril if they pack up and leave to start their own company.

This is what happened in 2007, when Robotic FX, founded by former iRobot employee Jameel Ahed, won a $280 million contract with the Army — only to have it frozen and the company sued to oblivion when iRobot sued over theft of trade secrets and patent infringement.

A far different tune is being sung today: Wired recently ran a glowing essay on iRobot and the robotics ecosystem that has sprung up in the area:

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Like many companies in the region, it asked employees to sign agreements. But while the company is protective of its livelihood, its founders acknowledge a greater truth: “There is more potential in robotics innovation than a single company can afford to pursue,” as iRobot cofounder and CEO Colin Angle puts it. Though employees might have learned lots of proprietary tricks about how to wire, assemble, and even source parts for various robo ventures, Angle says a business that doesn’t infringe on his company’s core market would get his “blessing, not handcuffs.”

The Globe similarly endorsed the change of policy in an editorial today (Subscription required), but it’s a tune others have been harping on for years. Last year, Scott Kirsner wrote about the noncompete agreement revolution brewing, and has since profiled a number of the local robotics start-ups built by or with iRobot alumni:

Rethink Robotics

CyPhy Works

Robot Rebuilt

The pace has been so high, it feels like a week doesn’t go by when a new, innovative start-up doesn’t come out with a new bot of its own, many of which bear some innovative touches, such as improved hand sensors or “leashes” that give drones unlimited flight time.

Now that iRobot’s gone easier on its non-competes, it feels like the future is finally arriving.

Want to get a seat front and center with some of these start-ups and the iRobot chief executive? Scott Kirsner is hosting an event with some of the industry’s movers and shakers tomorrow evening at Redstar Union.

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