IRobot Co-Founder Brooks Leaves to Launch New Robotics Firm Aiming to Revitalize U.S. Workforce

MIT roboticist Rod Brooks, one of three co-founders of iRobot and mentor to the other two (chairman Helen Greiner and CEO Colin Angle), is stepping down from his role as the company’s CTO in order to launch his own robotics firm, iRobot announced today. Brooks’ startup, called Heartland Robotics, will focus on industrial and workplace robots with the aim of boosting U.S. competitiveness. It will not, however, compete with iRobot—indeed, Brooks will act as a special consultant to the Bedford, MA-based firm and remain on its board of directors. IRobot said it will begin the search for a new CTO in 2009.

IRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), whose stock is down some 40 percent from its 52-week high despite winning a series of government contracts (including a new $200 million Army contract announced this morning) and a big trade secrets lawsuit in the past year, made it clear that the partial parting with Brooks was amicable. “Rod has been an integral part of iRobot over the years, playing a large role in the company’s success,” said Angle in a statement. “We are fortunate that he will continue to be a part of the company, lending his expertise and knowledge to our roadmap forward.”

Rod Brooks and robotBrooks was also named chair of a new technical advisory board that iRobot will soon be forming. In a phone call, Greiner said the purpose of the board is “to make sure iRobot stays on top of robot technology and make sure that we’re a leader in getting technology into the field and into homes today—and make sure that we stay in that leadership position from a technology point of view. It could [also] be seeing what else is going on out there and determining the direction of which technologies we choose to develop here.” She described Brooks as “a wonderful person to run our tech advisory board. He’s one of the top robotics researchers in the world today. You really can’t do better than Rod Brooks.”

Little information was given in the release about Heartland. The company’s website is essentially a splash page bearing the message: “Heartland Robotics is combining the power of computation—embodied in robots—and the extraordinary intelligence of the American workforce, to rehumanize and revitalize manufacturing.” It also offers visitors a chance to sign up for a mailing list and inquire about jobs.

However, Xconomy was able to reach Brooks (an Xconomist) this afternoon by phone. He said he will also be taking a leave from his position at MIT, where he is Panasonic Professor of Robotics, to work full time on the new venture, which has already rented space on the second floor of 485 Massachusetts Avenue—the same building that houses design firm IDEO—in the heart of Cambridge’s Central Square. He will be joined there by Ken Zolot (also an Xconomist), a serial entrepreneur who has guided a slew of MIT spinouts through their early business plan development phase, among them Arch Therapeutics, Myomo, and A123 Systems. Zolot founded and has been directing MIT’s Innovation Teams program, where students spend a semester working in MIT labs evaluating strategies for bringing lab discoveries to market. Like Brooks, Zolot will leave MIT to work full-time at the robotics startup. Brooks will serve as Heartland’s chairman and CTO, Zolot as the company’s CEO.

Zolot, reached first by e-mail and then in the call with Brooks, said that Heartland is actively recruiting employees and has already closed … Next Page »

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