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Bots for Seniors: iRobot Creates New Division to Serve Eldercare Market

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 29, 2009 09:00 AM

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In 1978, at age 16, Tod Loufbourrow published a book called "How to build a computer-controlled robot." A few years later, he went off to Harvard, and grew up to be an IT consultant, e-commerce expert, and software entrepreneur.

But now, just thirty years after the book, Loufbourrow is getting back into robotics, joining Bedford-based iRobot Corp. to lead a new business unit called iRobot Healthcare. iRobot chief executive Colin Angle is in San Diego this morning at the TED MED conference, announcing the company's expansion into home healthcare robots with a provocatively-titled talk: "Will a Robot Care for My Mom?"

Loufbourrow told me this summer that he and Angle met through a "High-Growth CEO Forum" in Boston, and started talking about the opportunity for robots that could assist with eldercare. I caught up with Angle yesterday to find out more.

"About 22 percent of the folks in the United States identify themselves as independent care-givers," Angle told me. "That means they spend money and time trying to help their parents stay independent, and stay out of a nursing home. That number is only going to go up over the next few decades." The goal of the new iRobot Healthcare division is "to create products that will enhance wellness and quality of life for seniors, and enhance their ability to live independently for longer."

Loufbourrow already has a handful of employees working with him on the new initiative, but Angle said they'll be able to leverage product development expertise (and grant-seeking expertise) from iRobot's existing divisions that focus on home robots (like the Roomba) and military bots (like the PackBot). Loufbourrow will report directly to Angle. He resigned from his last gig, as chairman and CEO of the human resources software-as-a-service firm Authoria, in May, and joined iRobot in August.

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Angle (pictured at left) said the company isn't interested in building robots for use in hospitals, but is focusing exclusively on the home. They'll start off, he expects, building telepresence robots that allow caregivers to keep an eye on elders and communicate when they can't be there. Using robots to monitor medication adherence -- whether an individual is taking the right doses at the right time -- is another early concept, as is providing exercise coaching and support. "Obviously, robots don't replace being there, but technology has to help if you want to keep Mom out of the nursuing home and not quit your job," Angle says.

"Ultimately, we think the robots will be able to take on more physical tasks like carrying groceries, or helping you get out of bed," Angle says. He says the company's Warrior robot, built for the military, can already carry "payloads" of 150 pounds (Sorry Pop, you are now classified as a payload!). And the company has been working on softer new approaches to manipulation and grabbing things that wouldn't involve cold, steely robot claws on your Grandma's back.

"This is a long-term vision and a long-term strategy," Angle said. "And I think the time is right for it. We're following what is a necessary trend -- to provide more care at home."

(Last month, Angle was talking about home healthcare opportunities at a conference in Berlin, without being specific about how iRobot wanted to participate in the market.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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