So, You Want to Make Money Making Robots…

12/09/2016 10:51 am ET
Echo-Factory via Nadia Hernandez

Paolo Pirjanian, creator of the technology behind the iRobot vacuum and founder of robotics company Embodied, Inc., recently spoke at Innovate Pasadena’s Friday Coffee Meetup, co-organized by my work, Echo-Factory. I got to interview him afterward, and here’s what he offered up.

Before he was a creator of robots designed to care for people, Paolo Pirjanian, an Armenian Dane with an Italian first name, was set to become a human being who cares for people. By his second year, Paolo was slated to graduate high school well on his way to becoming a medical doctor.

Then, the combination in his sophomore year of a canceled flight to Spain and a half-price desktop computer ruined everything.

At least according to his parents, whose hopes for their son’s medical future came crashing to the ground. What they didn’t know was that this early-eighties turn of events would set Paolo on a course toward medical robotics. “Getting into robotics was a weird accident for me,” Paolo said when I asked him how he came to love the idea of intelligent machines. “In tenth grade, I’d saved up to go to Spain for the summer, but my flight was canceled at the last minute. I figured I should do something useful with the refunded money rather than waste it.”

At the time, Paolo had been eavesdropping on the conversations of the “smart kids” at school and growing curious about “these things called computers that they couldn’t stop talking about.” He said, “I heard the smart kids talking about computers all the time. I had no idea what they were, but they sounded interesting…. I had this money and this curiosity, so I figured why not buy one and see what it’s all about.”

Money & Curiosity—a Future-Changing Combination

Cash in hand, Paolo began shopping around. In the early eighties, his choices were limited to the Commodore 64 (out of his price range) or one of what he referred to as the “black-box things.” He settled on a half-price black-box thing and got busy learning. “First, I realized I had to connect the thing to a TV. Then I just started reading and learning programming. That summer I stayed home, started coding and got really into it. I guess you could say I got obsessed.”

The Obsession Continues

Paolo went on to study programming at the collegiate level in Denmark, often Unix box coding for nights on end. He said, “My mom wondered if I was out late getting into trouble, but I wasn’t.” I told him that really depends on one’s definition of trouble.

In any case, robotics wasn’t part of Paolo’s big picture at that point. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do for my master’s, other than something in programming, which is such a wide field,” Paolo said.

When figuring out how to move forward, Paolo wandered the programming department, asking questions to get a feel for what the different teams were up to. That wandering is what led him to the world of robotics. “I walked into the robotics lab, and there was a professor standing there with his foot resting on a robot, talking about robotics. The whole picture was so unreal to me. That’s when I decided to do my master’s—and my PhD—in there,” Paolo said. “I lived in the lab after that.”

He took on a massively ambitious project, attempting to create a robot that could navigate the lab environment. Years later, that technology would form the basis for Paolo’s first company, Evolution Robotics, which iRobot would purchase and use to create the first self-directed vacuum cleaner. And the famous vacuum cleaner is what brings us to the business nuts and bolts of Paolo’s story, as well as the story, he says, of anyone who wants to successfully make a living making robots.

Follow the Dream by First Following the Money

Surprising as it may be, robot vacuums weren’t part of Paolo’s dream of creating robots capable of doing great good. However, it was that practical technology that allowed him to create Embodied—a company whose singular purpose is to bring do-gooder robots into the world.

Though he said things are improving as our world grows more automated, the greatest problem with sustaining robotics companies is that, traditionally, no one wants to pay for them. “As inventors and scientists, we want to make more incredible-seeming things, but you’ve got to start out following the money. And the money will always be in the practical arena first.” Apparently, investors see the hardware costs associated with robotics as a significant liability. To get them listening, you’ve got to appeal to the practical side.

He also said there are a couple of newer areas of interest helping poverty-stricken inventors get their ideas funded. The first is the subscription-based business model. In robotics, venture capitalists look for business models where the hardware is tied to a service with recurring revenues, such as subscriptions. He used Dropcam as an example. “The customer purchases the in-home security and surveillance camera for $199 and pays a monthly fee of $9 to $19 to have footage recorded and stored in the cloud. Then, if there’s a break-in or another need to review the footage, it’s accessible.”

The “maker movement,” which refers to the increasing ability of inventors to 3D print their own hardware components, is the other new area supporting forward momentum. Paolo said investors believe the in-house production of hardware reduces the risk of investing in robotics ventures.

The Takeaway

Follow your dream, but remember there’s no shame in following the money. That, after all, is just being a good businessperson. Paolo said that without Evolution Robotics and the iRobot vacuum, Embodied wouldn’t exist. And he wouldn’t be heading up a team developing robots that can care for people and improve quality of life—robots with real social relevance. (For the record, I did tell him that, in my world, clean floors have great social relevance, and that I’ve always thought the iRobot was awesome.)

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