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To sustain innovation, focus on consumer needs: Colin Angle, chairman, CEO and co-founder of iRobot

Colin Angle

A focus on solutions that consumers will actually want to pay for is the key to successful innovation, Colin Angle, co-founder of U.S. robotics company iRobot, said in an address in Tokyo on Nov. 11.

     Commitment to a long-term vision is also essential, Angle told the forum. He explained that his 24-year-old company, best known for its Roomba line of robotic vacuums, has an ongoing mission to "extend independent living."

     Put another way, iRobot aims to revolutionize elder care.

     Angle, who serves as iRobot's chairman and CEO, stressed that competition does not always drive growth. He said this is especially the case in new markets like that for cleaning robots, which continues to grow at a rate of more than 20% a year.

     "If companies compete to create innovative features that do not increase the values that the customers need, great money and energy will be spent to no effect," he said.

     In the vacuum robot business, successful companies are those that have focused on a seemingly simple task: cleaning floors. Angle said iRobot focused on making the Roomba small enough to easily navigate around and under household furniture -- rather than adding gimmicks like voice recognition or petlike characteristics, as some would-be competitors did.

     Angle noted that although it has been 12 years since the Roomba was released, 75% of vacuum robots are still made by robotics companies and not traditional home appliance manufacturers. The key, he said, is to have a "long-term goal that your company exists to solve."

     For iRobot, that goal is finding ways to deal with the growing global challenge of aging. Angle noted that population trajectories in many societies suggest there will simply be too few people to provide the necessary care for seniors.

     The Roomba already helps to reduce the burden of housework, but iRobot is approaching the challenge from other directions as well: It has introduced robots to help doctors remotely diagnose conditions and prescribe treatments for patients who live far from a hospital.

     The company's next challenge, Angle said, is to provide physical assistance to elderly individuals within the home.

     Angle admits there is a long way to go. "We are just about none of the way [to] achieving my dream," he said, adding that it is exciting to wake up every day with a chance to "move the ball forward."

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