After 12 Years of Roomba, iRobot Eyes Startups for Sector Growth

It’s been a dozen years since the original Roomba hit the market, and the floor-hugging autonomous vacuum is still the biggest-selling product for its manufacturer, iRobot.

That hasn’t come without some trying. Ever heard of the Scooba? How about the Looj? The Mirra? Those are all iRobot products that followed the Roomba, aimed respectively at cleaning floors, gutters, and pools.

None of them has taken off like the oversized hockey puck that started it all. As CEO Colin Angle told analysts on a recent conference call, “our biggest challenge for continued strong growth is overcoming skepticism.”

Which brings us to iRobot’s plunge into the corporate venture capital game.

The Bedford, MA-based company quietly emerged as an investor late last year, putting cash into a 3D room-mapping software startup called Paracosm. Last week, word trickled out that iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) was planning to make its venture investing a more formal affair, with an active search for a West Coast employee to lead the effort.

In some ways, the new venture arm could be seen as an extension of iRobot’s long-running research and development efforts. While it’s certainly possible that iRobot could wind up acquiring companies in its portfolio, the VC program’s “primary intent is to spur innovation in robotics and robotics-related areas,” company spokesman Charlie Vaida said.

By cutting checks to promising startups in its field, iRobot can keep an eye on emerging markets, identify companies to partner with, and even “increase the speed of innovation by going outside corporate walls,” Vaida said.

The company also hopes to just spur growth in the robotics industry at large, Vaida said—a goal that could also help lift iRobot’s fortunes.

IRobot has seen increased sales for its home robots as it has focused on heavier ad spending, but most of that growth is driven by the Roomba line, which introduced a new premium version in 2013. Sales of other floor-cleaning bots, like the wet-mopping Scooba and Braava models, haven’t grown as fast as the company wants, prompting iRobot to target more marketing and in-store promotions for those products in 2015.

It’s also worth noting that iRobot’s push comes amid overall investor enthusiasm for robotics startups and a larger push by established technology companies for connected, responsive in-home devices.

Just last week, Cambridge, MA-based social robotics startup Jibo landed a $25.3 million investment round from venture capitalists. Earlier this month, manufacturing-robot maker Rethink Robotics added another $26.6 million, led by big-name investors GE Ventures and Goldman Sachs.

(All of these companies—iRobot, Jibo, and Rethink—will have speakers at Xconomy’s Robo Madness Boston event, hosted by Google in Kendall Square on March 11.)

Amazon, meanwhile, is busy putting its listening-post home assistant Echo device in some early adopter homes, while Google has been on an acquisition tear for in-home devices, adding smart-thermostat maker Nest and home-monitoring webcam startup Dropcam.

That’s a lot of money being wagered that consumers are ready to let more high-tech gear into their homes. As a pioneer of home robotics, iRobot might well be feeling some pressure to make sure it doesn’t get left behind.

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