Amazon this morning announced plans to acquire iRobot for an all-cash deal valued at $1.7 billion. The home robotics firm, best known for pioneering robotic vacuum cleaners, was founded in 1990 by MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory fellows Colin Angle, Rodney Brooks and Helen Greiner. Twelve years after its founding, the company introduced the Roomba, a brand name that has since become synonymous with the brand, selling more than 30 million units as of 2020.
Brooks and Greiner have founded and run several other companies, while Angle has remained on board as CEO, a role he will retain after the acquisition.
“Since we started iRobot, our team has been on a mission to create innovative and practical products that make customers’ lives easier, which has led to inventions like the Roomba and iRobot OS,” Colin Angle, CEO, said in a statement. . “Amazon shares our passion for creating thoughtful innovations that empower people to do more at home, and I can’t think of a better place for our team to continue our mission. I am very excited to be a part of Amazon and to see what we can build together for customers in the years to come.”
Amazon has also been aggressively tackling the robotics space in the decade since it acquired Kiva Systems, though the Amazon Robotics division is focused solely on its warehouse/fulfillment game. More recently, the company has taken baby steps into the home with the launch of Astro, a cheerful robot that lacks Roomba’s unique approach.
“We know that saving time is important, and tasks take up precious time that can be better spent doing something customers love,” Amazon Devices Senior Vice President Dave Limp said in the statement. “For many years, the iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent the way people clean with products that are incredibly convenient and ingenious, from cleaning when and where customers want while avoiding common household obstacles, to automatically emptying the collection container. Customers love iRobot products, and I’m excited to work with the iRobot team to invent ways to make customers’ lives easier and more enjoyable.”
Amazon and iRobot have had an increasingly close partnership in recent years, through Roomba’s adoption of Alexa functionality and use of AWS servers. Angle has also often talked about the Roomba, and home robots in general, as a kind of connective tissue for the smart home. “The home of the future is a robot,” he said in an interview with TechCrunch. “And vacuum cleaners and other devices are hands, eyes and appendages of the home robot. Ultimately, this smart home of the future isn’t controlled by your cell phone. If you have 200 devices, you are not going to turn them on by taking out your cell phone. We need a home that programs itself, and you just live in your home, and the home does the right thing based on understanding what’s going on.”
However, the company has struggled to recapture the Roomba’s success, but not for lack of trying. He has experimented with several different home robot services, from cleaning gutters and pools to mopping floors and mowing lawns. The latter came in the form of Terra, which has been put on indefinite hold during the pandemic. That news came in April 2020, along with news that the company had laid off 70 employees, which is about 5% of its global workforce.
During a Twitter Spaces last month, Angle told me about Terra’s final release: “What we said on the last call is that we’re working on robots that don’t clean floors. Interpret that however you want. Having Amazon’s tremendous resources behind it will no doubt accelerate its ability to launch non-Roomba systems. The company was also founded on such experimentation, having built everything from dolls to military machines before striking gold with the Roomba.
The company spun off its military contract wing in 2016 as Endeavor, which went on to be acquired by FLIR Systems in early 2019. A year earlier, iRobot spun off telepresence robotics startup Ava. iRobot also made its own acquisitions, buying the connected air purification company Aeris late last year, in a bid to diversify its presence in the home.
The acquisition is pending standard regulatory scrutiny. Companies will have to convince regulators, among other things, that they are maintaining adequate privacy safeguards. Amazon’s acquisition of Ring has raised all sorts of red flags for advocacy groups, and its ownership of the world’s most popular home robot is sure to turn heads. Recent versions of Roomba have increasingly sophisticated built-in sensors to build 3D maps of users’ homes.
The deal ranks among Amazon’s biggest during what has been an especially busy time for the retail giant. Follow recent massive deals for OneMedical and MGM. If closed, the acquisition could represent a watershed moment for home robotics. For a decade, the Roomba (and the army of robotic vacuums that followed) has been the only truly mainstream home robot, as names like Anki, Jibo and Kuri have failed to make it to mainstream consumers. With the iRobot acquisition, Amazon no doubt hopes to be able to do for the home what it did with industrial robotics.
A decade after the Kiva acquisition, Amazon Robotics is almost universally recognized as the go-to warehousing and fulfillment robotics space amid a pandemic-fueled boom. Can your iRobot purchase do the same for the home?