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Roomba maker seeks to block rival SharkNinja vacuums from US

IRobot Corp. told a US trade judge Wednesday that it developed robotic vacuum features “too good to be true” only to have them copied and sold at a lower price by SharkNinja, which should be blocked from the US market as punishment.

In opening arguments at the International Trade Commission in Washington, the Roomba maker’s lawyer said JS Global Lifestyle Co.’s SharkNinja infringes four of its patents for enabling robot vacuums and hybrid vacuum-moppers to map rooms and floors, better navigate cleaning areas, and last longer through improved energy management.

“How do you make a robot do all of these things? A lot of engineers and a lot of programmers and a lot of time in the labs,” iRobot lawyer Gregg LoCascio of Kirkland & Ellis said. He likened the Roomba to when Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, and “it all seems pretty obvious now.”

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SharkNinja, which denies infringing the patents and maintains that they don’t even cover new ideas, accused iRobot of launching the legal attack only because it’s losing sales to a rival product that’s equally innovative.

“They’re both great robots, for different reasons,” said SharkNinja lawyer, Brian Rosenthal of Gibson Dunn. “We’re the only ones to take serious market share.”

The trial is iRobot’s latest effort in a years-long battle to curb the rising threat from SharkNinja products — this time by seeking an import ban on models including the Shark ION, IQ, and AI wet/dry VacMop robotic floor cleaners. Rosenthal said the SharkNinja began selling Series 3 models Jan. 1 that omit any of the features that are in the ITC case, to ensure it won’t be cut out of the market even if it loses the case.

While she is presiding over the trial, International Trade Commission Judge MaryJoan McNamara also described herself to the lawyers as “one of the consumers that is watching this with fascination.”

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McNamara is scheduled to release her findings by the end of April, with a final decision by the agency expected on Aug. 29. While the commission often pushes back its deadlines, the current time frame would mean that a loss for SharkNinja would see its products halted at the US border and pulled off store shelves before the 2022 holiday shopping season.

“By using its patents to squeeze SharkNinja out of the lucrative US robot-vacuum market, iRobot could take more of the estimated $145 million in annual high-end US product sales it’s missing out on,” Tamlin Bason, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, said in a Dec. 29 note.

IRobot shares dropped 18 percent in 2021, compared with a 29 percent rise in the S&P 500 Index, as the company lowered its guidance for the year. The company said it struggled with a “challenging supply chain environment,” including a shortage in semiconductor chips, and saw SharkNinja win some key battles to invalidate iRobot patents.

IRobot, based in Bedford, turned to the trade agency after failing to hobble SharkNinja with an earlier lawsuit closer to home. A federal judge in Boston in 2019 rebuffed iRobot’s request to order SharkNinja to stop selling its products while a lawsuit was pending.

It claims SharkNinja purposefully used iRobot inventions in “lower-quality imitations.” LoCascio said the Roomba has been cited as “the ultimate performance robot” and “best in class” in reviews of robotic vacuums.

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“What’s the cheapest? That’s not us,” LoCascio told McNamara.

Rosenthal acknowledged that SharkNinja, which had been in the upright vacuum market for years before the iRobot, had developed a strategy paper to take on the Roomba, which it labeled the “Kingslayer.”

“This is what people are supposed to do when they enter the market,” he told the judge. “They are supposed to say, ‘How can I build a better product?”’

Shark’s vacuums have quickly become the second-biggest in the market in part by advertising its lower price. The iRobot i7 costs about $600 — newer Roomba models can cost more than $1,000 — while the Shark Ion Wi-Fi connected vacuum sells for less than $350.

IRobot argued that it pioneered the technology.

“We practically created the robotic cleaner market,” Jennifer Lichtenheim, iRobot’s general manager for the Americas, testified. “Consumers didn’t believe a robot could vacuum the way they would.”

IRobot, founded in the 1990s by alumni of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, started life as a defense contractor making robots for the military and space exploration. The first Roomba floor vacuum was introduced in 2002 and quickly took off with consumers. By 2016, iRobot shed its defense and security business to focus exclusively on the home consumer market.

SharkNinja began in the 1990s as a Canadian R&D firm called Euro-Pro but now has its US headquarters in Needham, about 15 miles from iRobot’s home base. The company’s name came from a combination of its Shark home cleaning products and the popular Ninja cooking appliances. Hong Kong-based JS Global, which makes the Joyoung-branded kitchen appliance for the Chinese market and went public in 2019, bought SharkNinja in 2017.

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Both companies have been aggressive in using patents to protect their brands from competitors, including a now-settled 2019 lawsuit SharkNinja filed against celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse over a rival to its Ninja Foodi appliance that combines a pressure cooker and air fryer.

The ITC is a popular forum for companies looking to hamstring rivals. IRobot’s earlier patent cases at the agency forced Stanley Black & Decker Inc. to stop selling home robotic vacuums and won import bans on other firms, including Techtronic Industries Co.’s Hoover and Shenzhen Silver Star.