Bedford, Mass.-based robotics maker iRobot Corp. (NSDQ: IRBT), best known for its autonomous floor-cleaning Roomba and bomb-defusing military robots, is making a foray into health care with an emphasis on robots that can help at home.
At a presentation this week, iRobot CEO Colin Angle showed off the mobile, tablet-wielding Ava robotic platform, capable of autonomously mapping and navigating complex environments such as hospitals or homes to connect residents with remote family members or physicians via the tablet’s video chat.
Although the most famous health care robots, such as Intuitive Surgical‘s (NSDQ:ISRG) da Vinci, are hospital-bound, Angle wants to develop health care robots that can help the ever-increasing population of seniors to avoid nursing homes.
"Extending independent living at home will ultimately turn out to be the killer app for robots," Angle said.
Angle keynoted a panel of speakers at MIT’s Enterprise Forum in Cambridge, Mass., April 9, making his case for helpful robots that allow the elderly maintain safe, independent lives at home.
Given the decreasing costs of components and rising functionality of electronics, Angle envisions a near future where every home plays guest to a robot that once again makes house calls the norm for treatment.
The robots needn’t perform home surgery or examine a prostate in Angle’s vision; their main purpose is to connect patients to remote physicians who can perform consults without taking seniors out of their homes or patients out of their beds.
"It allows doctors and nurse to be able to afford house calls again," Angle told the audience. "What that means is that you can get treated for 80% of the things you might need to go to a hospitals for simply by having a robot in your home. If the diagnosis says you need something unique, well then you go to the hospital and you get the care with the big machines that aren’t transportable. I think this is really within our grasp within our lifetime."
In the Fall of 2009, iRobot launched an initiative to explore health care robotics, particularly looking for ways to help extend home care for the elderly. The company brought in serial entrepreneur Tod Loofbourrow to spearhead all aspects of the health care group’s strategy, research and operations, reporting directly to Angle.
After less than 2 years, iRobot rolled the stealthy robot-assisted health care division into its consumer products business with a promise to "remain as committed as ever (if not more) to health care." Loofbourrow left the company rather abruptly, a departure that Angle, speaking with attendees after the panel, described as part of the company’s plan to map the health care arena experimentally for a short while before getting down to business.
A few months later, in the summer of 2011, the device maker signed an extensive development and licensing agreement with InTouch Health, makers of remote presence telemedicine systems aimed at helping physicians perform real-time remote consults with patients through FDA-cleared telemedicine systems.
In February iRobot announced a $6 million investment into InTouch, through which iRobot would get a foot in the door with hospitals, emergency care facilities, patient wards and operating and procedure rooms where InTouch already has its tendrils.
InTouch, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, has its telepresence robots in more than 400 hospitals where more than 1,500 physicians provide remote consults.
Although InTouch has made its mark institutionally, iRobot envisions a different robot making its way into seniors’ homes.
"Starting at home with an FDA product that’s too expensive is a great way to fail," Angle told MassDevice.com after the panel. The home-care system he envisions won’t require FDA clearance or Medicare reimbursement – he wants to go straight to consumers.
"Reimbursement is a challenging issue in the best circumstances," Angle told us after a presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week. "Private payer works, I know that from the Roomba."