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 a Series A funding round, though he would not name the lead investors or specify the amount raised. “We will be building on previous MIT work that Rod has directed, and we’ve already completed a licensing agreement with MIT,” he said. The men would not name the specific technology licensed, but Zolot did say that both he and Brooks feel “the time is right to do something big and revolutionary” in workplace and industrial robotics.

For his part, Brooks said he has been thinking of the idea behind Heartland for about a year, and that over the past few months things have really come together. He and Zolot said that Heartland embodies two important trends. One is that global labor markets are under increasing stress. The other is the widespread availability of low-cost computation and other components for robotics. Together, these trends have set the stage for a new era of industrial productivity through robotics. The men stressed that Heartland is not about replacing workers, but empowering them in much the way the wheel put more power into the hands of manual workers. “This really is about putting power into their hands,” says Brooks.

While the pair would not discuss Heartland’s exact plans in detail, it’s possible to form some good guesses. For starters, there’s this page on Brooks’ website at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), which bears one simple sentence about his ambitions under the heading “New Work:”

“I want to effect a powerful evolution in the world’s labor markets, and my current focus is to develop low-cost robots that will empower American workers.”

You can bet that’s Heartland. More clues come from what Brooks told Xconomy a year ago, after he stepped down as CSAIL’s director to go back to full-time teaching and lab work. Citing a “a scientific mid-life crisis,” Brooks told me at the time: “I’m trying to do for manual workers what PCs did for information workers, i.e., let ordinary manual workers become their own information engineer and increase their own productivity.”

Around 1980, computers were these huge, mysterious machines kept in special rooms, he explained. “Office workers ‘used’ computers by poring through fan-folded printouts of sales and stock reports. If they wanted a different analysis than what was delivered they had to defer to systems analysts, programmers, punch-card operators, and computer operators. They didn’t have direct control.”

The PC, of course, changed all that, especially with the rise of spreadsheets and other software programs that automated many office tasks and turned them from onerous to routine. Office workers, said Brooks, “became their own automation engineers, and they increased their own productivity.”

In looking at the robotics world today, Brooks noted that robots are pretty much where computers were back around 1980. Industrial robots—a space not occupied by iRobot, which makes consumer and military robots—take on many dangerous tasks in factories and other operations. But it takes automation engineers months to program them for new tasks.

Brooks was out to change that paradigm—both in factories and smaller, Mom-and-Pop operations. “My use case is a bakery in Cambridge, three or four people,” he told me. “They go on the web, click, click, click, they order a robot for 2000 bucks.” Then, when the robot arrives, “they don’t read a manual, because no one reads a manual.” Yet, he said, by employing a combination of natural language and physical demonstration of the job at hand, the bakery workers could program their new robot to tackle basic, rote tasks that previously had to be done by them manually. “They won’t even think of it as programming,” he said.

By thus empowering American workers and boosting their productivity, Brooks said that robots could make U.S.-based manufacturing a viable alternative to outsourcing in many circumstances. “This can be a force for evolving in a different direction from the way we have been heading the last 50 years,” he said. “That’s my plan.”

As he added in today’s phone call: “I want to change the world. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at Follow @bbuderi

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