IRobot Corp. is asking a trade judge to block US imports of rival SharkNinja robotic vacuum cleaners, alleging they copied advanced features.
IRobot will argue in the trial that begins Wednesday that JS Global Lifestyle Co.’s SharkNinja infringes five of its patents for technology that enables robotic vacuums and hybrid vacuum-moppers to create a map of a room or floor, navigate areas to clean and better manage energy.
SharkNinja, which denies infringing the patents and maintains that they aren’t even valid to begin with, last year accused iRobot of an “ill-conceived effort to litigate SharkNinja out of the robotic vacuum cleaner market and limit consumer choice.”
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.
International Trade Commission Judge MaryJoan 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% in 2021, compared with a 29% 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 stands by its more than 1,500 patents globally, including the five that it has asserted against SharkNinja at the ITC,” Charlie Vaida, a spokesman for Bedford, Massachusetts-based iRobot, said in a statement.
Officials with JS Global didn’t respond to requests for comment ahead of the trial.
IRobot 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 “its lower-quality imitations, and quickly became the second-largest domestic player in the market segment” by marketing itself as a low-cost alternative. The iRobot i7 costs about $600 while the Shark Ion Wi-Fi connected vacuum sells for less than $350.
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 the Boston suburb of Needham, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) 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.
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.
The case is In the Matter of Certain Robotic Cleaning Devices, 337-3530, US International Trade Commission (Washington).