The Lady and her Robots
Never quit. "Helen is just incredibly persistent," says Angle. "The notion of quitting just never crosses her mind." Once, he says, they were late in delivering a product to a Washington customer; it was a stressful situation that would have been difficult to recover from. Frantic, they arrived at the Federal Express office only to find it closed. What to do? "Helen said, 'Let's go! Let's drive it to Washington ourselves,'" Angle recalls. "So we took turns sleeping, and we got it there, and Helen just charmed the customer."
That kind of purposefulness, by all appearances, started young. Born in London, Greiner grew up on New York's Long Island with her mother, a math and science teacher, and her father, a chemistry major turned businessman. Mathematically and mechanically inclined, she played daily chess with her father starting at age 5 and was programming a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer when she was a preteen. Before long, she was doing her own repairs to her Volvo station wagon with parts she bought at the junkyard. (For "fun," she recently wired her own house for cable and installed a wireless network.)
She sees no disconnect between female sensibilities and the pursuit of mechanical engineering. On the contrary, she works with educators to get more women to enter the field. "Girls think it's geeky, but it's so creative and interesting," she says. "You can build a bridge or a robot or a new computer system."
At MIT, where she also earned a master's in computer science, Greiner met Angle, an electrical engineer with a master's in computer science, and Brooks, who served as her faculty adviser. It was later, when Greiner was working on satellites at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California that Angle and Brooks called her about starting a robot company. Would she come back to Cambridge? "She said yes in about 30 seconds," Angle recalls, "and got in her car the next day."
In the early days, Greiner and her colleagues had developed robots for research. "Back then we didn't know that you had to be more practical," says Brooks. "We just thought this is really cool technology so people should want it." Ultimately, of course, they knew better. A few years later, Greiner says, "I had a personal epiphany. I was de-bugging yet another computer and I knew that this wasn't going to go anywhere unless we got it to another level." That was the end of the credit cards and the beginning of venture capital funding.
Pass the A-1. After 15 years, with all the attendant trip-ups and triumphs of a start-up, Greiner, Angle, and Brooks remain the sorts of leaders who can accept the inherent competition in their roles while fixing hard on a single vision and remaining supportive friends. "We are a work-hard-play-hard place," Greiner says. True to her word, she competes with Angle to learn one new sport a year. She likes kayaking, rock climbing, and paintball and plays right wing on the company ice hockey team. But all of these pale next to snowboarding, a passion she holds close to robotics. "I love the speed, the freedom, learning all the new tricks."