The Lady and her Robots
One day at a movie theater in 1977, Helen Greiner met the man who would change her life. Like most, he had his flaws. He was too fat. His legs were stubby and his arms were too long. His voice was oddly pitched and flat. But to the 11-year-old girl transfixed by Star Wars , R2D2 was the most beautiful creature in the world. How crushed she was, then, to learn that he was operated by a human and not by some cutting-edge technology.
Since that moment, Greiner, 38, has devoted her life to the development of robotics, "real" R2D2s that can do everything from sniffing out bombs along Baghdad roadsides to exploring pyramids in ancient Egypt to mopping a kitchen floor. iRobot, the company she cofounded with Colin Angle and Rodney Brooks, now does more than $95 million annually in industrial, military, and consumer sales and raised $70.6 million in its initial public offering last month. Not bad considering the three engineers started their tinkering in an MIT graduate lab and financed it with personal credit cards.
Blasting away. Greiner, who is petite and reserved, hardly fits the picture of the charismatic company chairman. Which might explain her admonition that "leaders don't always look like you think they should." She is so shy that she used to become ill before giving a speech. And airplane travel fills her with equal dread. Yet today Greiner routinely talks before thousands without consequence, and she flies at least once a week. "I didn't like these things about myself, so I was determined to change," she says. "I made a conscious effort to overcome them. I decided to never let it stop me."
What drives her, simply, is a passion for robots--the belief that this once futuristic technology can do the deadly, the dangerous, and the drudgery and, most important, can be made practical and affordable. "You'd have to say we were nuts to have believed so strongly in this," says Brooks, the company's chief technical officer and the director of artificial intelligence at MIT. Yet the company has already proved its mass appeal with the success of the Roomba, a vacuum cleaner that has become the bestselling consumer robot in history.
More important, iRobot's products are saving lives. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is deploying 300 of the company's PackBots, 42-pound track-wheeled rovers with arms and antennae that seek out suspicious objects and remove them to safe places for possible detonation. Sensitive enough to sniff out a bomb, they are also tough enough to climb stairs and to survive a drop from 10 feet onto a concrete floor.
Gender conventions suggest that Angle, the company's chief executive officer, would be running the military side of iRobot's business, and Greiner the consumer end. Yet, as anyone who really knows Greiner might have predicted, the case is exactly the opposite. It is Greiner who secures government contracts and networks with generals. Angle recalls the day he and Greiner went target shooting with a military client, a three-star admiral. The weapon of choice was the AK-47, but for safety reasons the automatic function had been disabled. "Of course Helen was the only woman there," says Angle, "and she kept saying 'I want to fire the automatic.' " After much protesting, the mechanism was restored. Greiner blasted away.