The Making of a Pioneer

A Q&A with the co-founder of iRobot on leveraging technology and disruption.

With big dreams and a passion to be a pioneer, a robotics innovator began her journey. Helen Greiner, the co-founder of iRobot and now CTO and founder of CyPhy Works, began her career much like many of us – as an intern. She worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping design robots to make repairs in space.

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CyPhy Works solves real-world problems in public safety, construction and agriculture.

Greiner went on to co-found iRobot Corporation and served as its president. Under her leadership, iRobot Corporation created affordable robots for numerous industries. The most well-known? Roomba, the popular disk-shaped vacuum cleaner that takes the tedium out of cleaning your home.

Greiner transitioned to aerial robotics and founded a drone company, CyPhy Works, which taps into the technology to solve real-world problems in public safety, construction and agriculture.

Longitudes recently caught up with Greiner to discuss how her work will change the world as we know it.

Tell us a little bit about CyPhy Works.

Helen: CyPhy Works builds rugged, reliable drones for all different kinds of industrial customers such as oil and gas, military, public safety, mining, construction, and I believe logistics. At CyPhy Works, we concentrate on building drones around unmet customer needs. With our tether system, the unmet need is persistence. Most drones fly 30 to 45 minutes at a time, but ours routinely fly for hundreds of hours at a time.

CyPhy Works develops aerial robotics in the oil and gas, agriculture, entertainment, law enforcement and mining industries.

What opportunities do you see in your industry? How can companies adapt to take advantage of those opportunities?

The opportunities for robotics and drones are vast. Venture capitalists put almost $2 billion into robotics companies in the past year. Companies that are very entrepreneurial are poised to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow because they can change on a dime. They see what’s happening in the marketplace and can pursue new and innovative technology as it comes out and incorporate it into products very quickly.

I find it best that you pursue a core business, and that core business is the bread and butter. That core business consists of the product being manufactured and delivered, and that should remain the top priority.

But companies have to look at what’s next. What are the other opportunities that are contiguous in the space? Where can you jump to next that makes the most use of the technology, the customer base, the learning and the experience that you have, and then expand from a beachhead of success?

What is it like to build a foundation and then use that as a launching pad for new opportunities?

The first thing you have to do is step back and think. You can try and stay the same, but the world is changing around you, and you have to keep up with what’s going on in the world. You have to know about it, and you have to take the best of it back into your business, or else you’ll find you’re disrupted.

Where are we now in terms of technology?

It’s a wonderful time for innovation in robotics and drones because there is so much happening. You have autonomous cars. You’ve got delivery drones. You’ve got home automation. These are three vast areas where you’re going to see more and more robotic products and drones helping people get the job done.

So much is happening in technology because of the innovative minds entering into the field and the excitement and potential behind it. There’s so much that is coming together to make it really an explosion in robotic technology.

How will your work change the world?

It changes the world by making the whole system more efficient. It’ll change the world by making the time it takes to get from the initiation point to the consumer much quicker.

There’s automation happening at all different points in the chain. There’s automation in the factories to build the product. There’s automation in the warehouses to store it. There’s automation in fulfillment centers. There’s automation in shipping. There’s automation in delivery.

When you put that all together, you can really reduce the time it takes to get a package from start to finish.

How do you identify a disrupter?

Disrupters usually aren’t recognized at first because they’re working on the edge of the network and often come out of left field. They’re getting a part of the job done more efficiently. But once it snowballs, the disruption takes on a life of its own. I think disruption as it happens is what drives industry forward.

It creates new business opportunities where companies can make a difference with their technology and capture a larger market share. It’s like that blue-ocean opportunity where you’re not fighting for every nickel, but there’s a large, vast area that you can attack. I believe drones are that today because you have selfie drones, hobby drones that take pictures, but there’s so much more that drones can be doing.

UPS has an investment in CyPhy Works through our Strategic Enterprise Fund.

You might also like:

The Future of Delivery 

The Helping Drone

Cleaning Floors and Saving Lives, One Robot at a Time

Helen Greiner is a co-founder of iRobot and currently CTO of CyPhy Works.

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