If you happened to be on the lookout, a quarter century ago, for companies that might someday go on to transform the American household, iRobot would hardly have stood out as the most obvious candidate. Founded in 1990 by three hard-core MIT roboticists, the Bedford-based company spent its first decade or so poking around for sustainable business models. There were triumphs for iRobot — its nimble machines were enlisted to help with the war effort in Afghanistan, and its technology informed the design of rovers that NASA sent to roam the dusty surface of Mars — but they didn’t tend to involve the kinds of products that people invite into their homes. So imagine the astonishment when the humble robot that would change the company’s fortunes, as well as the way tens of millions of us approach housekeeping, did so by vacuuming the living room floor.
When the Roomba robotic vacuum launched in September 2002, it was an instant sensation. It took everything that iRobot had learned about scanning and navigating a physical space and applied it to the home. The gliding little disk could somehow clean your floors for you, magically working its way under and around obstacles thanks to algorithms iRobot developed to clear minefields.
The auto-pilot vacuum may not have been a flying car but, five years before the release of the first iPhone, it was the kind of machine we’d been anticipating ever since The Jetsons. “We started talking to the press,” iRobot cofounder and CEO Colin Angle told me in an interview last year. “The reaction was . . . ‘Maybe we’re seeing the beginnings of the future!’”
By the end of its first month on the market, 150 articles in the national press had been written about the Roomba. By the end of the third, iRobot had sold 70,000 of them.
iRobot was far from the only company to take note of the exploding demand. Rivals with backgrounds in everything from traditional vacuums to robotics to consumer electronics jumped into the new market segment, which now generates $3 billion a year, according to one estimate, and is expected to continue growing. Some of these competitors, taking advantage of a trend in off-the-shelf robot components, sold machines that cost less than a Roomba, while looking an awful lot like one and offering many similar features.
Add it all up and iRobot, a company with some $1.5 billion in annual revenues, has come to find itself in a fight to maintain its leading position in an industry that it essentially created. “We see that in many, many industries,” says Tucker Marion, a professor at Northeastern University who specializes in entrepreneurship and innovation. “It’s a classic problem for the leaders that come to market with a sophisticated technology. They have to defend attacks from the lower ends of the market.”
For well over a decade, iRobot fended off such attacks from some of the best-known names in vacuums — including Hoover, Black & Decker, and Bissell — and maintained its undisputed market leadership. Then came a new challenger, one that would prove to be perhaps the fiercest iRobot had ever faced.
SharkNinja is located only 15 miles down the road from iRobot, in Needham. With a fanatical devotion to customer experience and sophisticated marketing strategies, the company has grown from a little-known concern hawking cooking and cleaning products via infomercial to one of the most admired home device brands in the country, with annual revenues that now approach $4 billion. SharkNinja had already seized the market-leading spot in traditional vacuums from Dyson. So when SharkNinja announced in 2017 that it was about to release a robot vacuum, it may have been no coincidence that iRobot’s share price temporarily tumbled 18 percent.
Today, SharkNinja’s growing line of robotic models receive high marks for quality and reliability from review publications, and can cost significantly less than Roombas, the most-advanced of which can go for $1,000 or more. The company is now second only to iRobot in sales of the devices in the United States.
How has SharkNinja done it? “It’s this maniacal focus on consumer satisfaction,” Mark Barrocas, SharkNinja’s president, tells me. “If we can make that similar robot and deliver it to the consumer at half the price, who wins? The consumer should not be paying a thousand dollars for these products.”
To iRobot, however, SharkNinja’s robot vacuums are entirely too similar. Starting in 2019, the company challenged SharkNinja in court, alleging patent infringements and false advertising. “Internal documents and testimony from Shark,” iRobot claimed in a filing with the US International Trade Commission (ITC) last year, “revealed that Shark’s plan has always been to copy iRobot’s innovations, undercut iRobot on price, and steal iRobot’s market share.”
Barrocas, SharkNinja’s president, dismisses the accusations, and points out that his company has been sued by rivals before only to emerge victorious in court. As both companies now await a final ruling from the ITC, one thing seems clear: The robot vacuum war is just beginning.
When Colin Angle was a junior at MIT, he decided it was time to start thinking seriously about a career. This being the late 1980s, he saw in the emerging field of robotics the potential for boundless opportunity and creativity. This being MIT, he was hardly alone.
Applying to the university’s prestigious Artificial Intelligence Lab, Angle discovered that he’d be competing with something like 80 of his classmates for one of the three open spots. During the interview, Angle recalls, “they gave us all a piece of paper and said, Make a list of all the things that you have built.” He thought all the way back to his childhood, compiling a mental list of a lifetime spent imagining, designing, and constructing. There was the fully functioning crossbow he’d made, and also the wooden canoe, the intricate rubber-band-powered race cars and the marble cannons, too. On and on Angle wrote, taking more than an hour to finish. “I handed it in and they’re looking at me like, Who are you?” he recalls with a laugh. “And I looked at them and said, ‘I think I’ve found home.’”
Angle was chosen for the lab, and it wasn’t long before he proved he belonged. Fiddling around with model airplane servos, he figured out how to attach them to legs for a robot that “could kind of walk around,” he recalls. “And that was really interesting because at the time, legged robots were this really hard, crazy problem that no one knew how to do.”
Among those who took notice was an MIT professor, Rodney Brooks. Over that summer, Brooks and Angle refined the robot, with Angle concentrating on the hardware and low-level programming and Brooks focusing on the high-level AI. The result was Genghis, a six-legged robot, modeled on insect physiology and intelligence, that could climb over complex obstacles. Similar projects required supercomputers to operate, but theirs used a sparse 256 bytes of RAM. Genghis won Angle the undergraduate thesis prize at MIT, was important to Brooks receiving tenure, and now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
Angle had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and was part-way through a doctoral program before finally deciding that changing the world via robots was the kind of thing better suited to the boardroom than the classroom. In 1990, he left school and founded what would become iRobot with Brooks and fellow MIT graduate Helen Greiner. They tried out a few names for the fledgling company before settling on iRobot, a nod to internet-connectivity and Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction novel I, Robot.
Over its first decade, iRobot’s machines were used in a variety of commercial capacities. “For the first ten, eleven years, it was always enough to keep the lights on,” Angle says, “but not enough to really scale the company.”
Among the many ideas that iRobot explored during these years was one proposed by engineer Joe Jones, the company’s first full-time employee, who while at MIT had created his “Rug Warrior” robot to vacuum his apartment. After an iRobot team worked for three years, the company was ready to release a robot vacuum for the home. It was tentatively named “Cyber Suck,” though that was mercifully changed to the Roomba.
(Jones went on to found Tertill, the Billerica-based maker of a solar-powered garden-weeding robot, where iRobot cofounder Helen Greiner is now the CEO.)
When the Roomba launched in 2002, no one was more surprised by the frenzied reception than the company that created it. “We had to shut down our website on the first day, to give you an idea of how sophisticated we were, because we got 200 or 300 orders,” Angle recalls. So revolutionary was the Roomba that it managed to become a runaway success despite the fact that iRobot — which tended to view product promotion as a violation of the artistic purity of its technology — spent essentially nothing to market it. “We thought advertising was uncouth,” Angle says. “We were an engineering company, built by engineers for engineers. We had, I think, a $10,000 PR budget. Mostly for travel.”
But thanks to favorable press coverage and accounts from delighted customers, word began to spread. “The Roomba took us from $15 million of [annual] revenue to $54 million of revenue to $95 million of revenue,” Angle says. Where opportunity is discovered, however, competition soon follows. “It took eighteen months,” Angle says, “before the first copycat robots were on the market.”
Still, for the next decade, iRobot’s competitors failed time and again. It was really hard, back then, to make a robot that anyone would want to bring into their home. There were all the hardware challenges of constructing a robot that was reliable and durable, and then there was the software and AI expertise you needed to make the whole thing work effectively . . . and then you had to put it all together at a price people would be willing to pay. Collectively, these difficulties represented what is known in the business world as a “moat” — a barrier that protects you from competition. For a decade, iRobot’s moat was deep and wide. And then it wasn’t.
As robot vacuums proved a smash with consumers, more companies looked to enter the market — and third-party manufacturers saw a business in making high-quality components. To sell a good robot, competitors no longer needed the kind of engineering expertise that iRobot was founded on. They could simply buy the parts they required. “You could go and find a laser range finder. You could go find the right kind of gear motor,” Angle says, his disgust evident. “You could go buy a robot brain that would make it work.” The competition began to catch up. “We started to see the rise of this fast-follower business model deliver some amount of success at a more aggressive price.”
Still, iRobot managed to maintain its lead, developing new technologies and ever-more-advanced Roomba models. The company would also vigorously defend its patents in the International Trade Court, settling a lawsuit that sought to bar Stanley Black & Decker from selling a robot vacuum for the home, and winning one that prevented Hoover and Shenzhen Silver Star from importing some units. By 2016, iRobot still had an estimated 64 percent share of the $1.5 billion high-end robotic vacuum market, retaining its title as the king of the sector.
Just down Route 128 in Needham, however, SharkNinja had been conducting research for a new robotic vacuum. As it plotted its entry into the market, the company targeted iRobot’s Roomba in an internal document that they labeled “Kingslayer.”
When Mark Barrocas joined SharkNinja, in 2008, the company was still known as Euro-Pro and had only recently relocated to the Boston area. Founded in Montreal by Mark Rosenzweig, the third-generation in a family of appliance makers and marketers, the business started out selling sewing machines, ironing systems, and steam presses before expanding into kitchen devices such as food processors and blenders.
Barrocas was serving as a division president at Aramark Corp. when Rosenzweig recruited him. “We were a small company in West Newton,” Barrocas says of his early days at Euro-Pro, which changed its name to SharkNinja in 2015. “We had about 40 people there. We were doing about $150 million in revenue.” (SharkNinja is now a subsidiary of the Chinese company JS Global Lifestyle Company Ltd.)
Rosenzweig and Barrocas had bigger ambitions. SharkNinja was unusually skilled at studying how people use consumer products, and figuring out how to make them even more appealing by offering strategic new features and better pricing. “It goes back to Steve Jobs’s approach of focus groups,” Barrocas says. “If you ask a consumer, they don’t know what they want. But if you watch a consumer and you probe with them, you can start to figure out how do they navigate around the products.”
Barrocas says this approach has helped to fuel the company’s 21 percent compound annual growth rate over the past 14 years, in an industry where the overall rate is about 3.5 percent a year.
The company also excels at marketing, using online ads, cable shopping channels, and infomercials — it spent $130 million on television advertising in 2013 alone — to build demand for its Ninja line of kitchen appliances and its other home products.
Like iRobot, SharkNinja’s Needham headquarters includes a replica of a large living space in which its products are tested in kitchens and living rooms. Unlike iRobot, however, SharkNinja also has a replica of the retail environment in its planogram room.
Across a half-dozen or so aisles, the planogram space simulates the real displays of big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart, with future SharkNinja packaging arrayed on shelves alongside products from other companies. “The marketing teams use this extensively to look at how does our product show up on the shelf versus the competition,” the company’s senior vice president of finance, Adam Quigley, told me on a tour last year. “How do we make sure that the box presence makes sense? The message that we’re trying to convey, the marketing materials — all of that comes to life.”
When the company decided in the mid-2000s to get into upright vacuum cleaners, it began, as it usually did when entering a new market, by identifying the features that could set its unit apart. “Vacuums have been around for a hundred years,” Barrocas says. “I mean, hasn’t everything been invented in a vacuum before?” After studying the market, however, SharkNinja found its way in.
“We developed a no-loss-of-suction vacuum technology,” Barrocas says, meaning the vacuum wouldn’t get weaker as its dust cup filled up. “There was another competitor that had a similar no-loss-of-suction technology,” he adds, “but we were able to deliver it to the consumer at a much more affordable, accessible price.”
That other competitor is Dyson, the UK-based maker of popular vacuums and other high-end products. At the time SharkNinja introduced its new line, in 2008, Dyson was the market leader, and SharkNinja sales accounted for merely 1 percent. But SharkNinja continued releasing new-and-improved models: The Shark Lift-Away, the Shark Rotator Powered Lift-Away, the Shark DuoClean. Each proved to be a top-seller, and by 2015 SharkNinja vacuums accounted for 20 percent of US sales and the company had taken first place. (As of 2021, it was still number 1, with nearly 31 percent.)
But Dyson was ready to fight in the courts as well as the marketplace. In 2014 it sued, alleging SharkNinja had violated three of its patents and seeking $200 million in damages. After four years, the judge found SharkNinja had not infringed on the patents.
Meanwhile, more lawsuits soon followed between the rivals, involving arcane arguments over patents, advertising claims — a jury awarded Dyson $16.4 million at one point — vacuum settings, and the contested definition of “shag” carpet. One judge, adrift in a sea of court filings, bemoaned “the morass of arguments and sniping” between the feuding companies.
All the while, SharkNinja continued to release popular new products, and today offers a dizzying array of devices across 21 product lines. “You see a lot of consumer products companies that sell one category or maybe two categories. We want to sell you two products a year,” Barrocas says. “We want to sell you an air purifier, a hair dryer, a robot, an oven, a grill, a coffee maker, a cordless vacuum, a mop.”
It’s a strategy that has delivered spectacular results. In 2008, the company had about $150 million in revenue. By the end of 2021 it had recorded net sales of more than $3.7 billion.
“It’s our job to continue to keep innovating,” Barrocas says. “Every single year, when the circus comes to town, there’s got to be a new act.”
SharkNinja entered the robotic vacuum market in 2017 with the Ion. And as it does with all its products, the company began planning its follow-up unit, one that would deliver the new features and the aggressive pricing that customers want. About two years later it released the Shark IQ Robot, a version that could empty and recharge itself. On its box, SharkNinja claimed it had “more suction than the best-selling iRobot Roomba.”
And that’s when iRobot sued. “Robot War Breaks Out,” a Bloomberg News headline announced. “And so begins the robocalypse . . . ,” Elon Musk quipped on Twitter.
In iRobot’s October 2019 filing in federal court in Boston, it accused SharkNinja of infringing on its patents as well as engaging in false advertising (allegations SharkNinja denied).
A year earlier, iRobot explained, it had unveiled its highly acclaimed Roomba i7+, which could map a user’s home as well as empty and recharge itself. It landed on TIME magazine’s list of the best inventions of 2018. Then came SharkNinja offering similar features for under $500, when the Roomba cost roughly $1,000. “Shark is not even shy about being a copycat,” iRobot lawyers wrote in their complaint.
Since more than half of iRobot’s annual revenues came during the holiday season, the company asked that SharkNinja be temporarily banned from selling its units. The judge denied that request, and the suit remains ongoing.
In January 2021, iRobot filed its suit before the US International Trade Commission, requesting a ban on several Shark devices. By that point, the strong sales of SharkNinja’s floor-cleaning robots had earned it second-place in the sector, behind only iRobot.
Angle declined to answer questions about his company’s ITC litigation, but his comments in a press release at the time spoke volumes. “iRobot has accumulated more than 1,500 patents worldwide, which reflects innovative work, tenacity and dedication of our engineering teams over the past 30 years,” he said in the statement. “SharkNinja has repeatedly misappropriated iRobot’s intellectual property, and we refuse to let that stand.”
For its part, SharkNinja has denied infringing on the patents, as well as argued that the patents at issue aren’t valid to begin with. The company has accused iRobot of “an ill-conceived effort to litigate SharkNinja out of the robotic vacuum cleaner market and limit consumer choice.”
When I asked Mark Barrocas if SharkNinja respects the intellectual property of its competitors, he said that his company employs 400 or so engineers, has a portfolio of patents as robust as anyone’s, and certainly doesn’t need to copy the work of others. “We come out with amazingly innovative products,” he says, “and other people come out with similar products a year or two after us.” (When that happens, SharkNinja has not been shy about taking legal action to defend its intellectual property. In 2019, for instance, it claimed in a lawsuit that the new Emeril Lagasse Pressure AirFryer infringed on three patents related to its Ninja Foodi appliance, which had been released about a year earlier. The case was eventually dismissed.)
Barrocas was also dismissive of iRobot’s claims that SharkNinja has improperly copied its patented technology. “I won’t comment about any ongoing litigation, but just because you have a patent, it might not mean it’s worth the paper that it’s written on,” he says. “There are a number of cases that you can go look up that we filed a petition with the patent office and said, ‘We don’t feel that these patents are legitimate patents.’ And the patent office sided with SharkNinja.” (SharkNinja points out that office has invalidated some of the patents in the ITC case, in part or in full; iRobot is appealing.)
Last October, ITC Administrative Law Judge MaryJoan McNamara released her preliminary findings. They came back as less a knockout for either company than a split decision. McNamara found that SharkNinja was in violation of parts of two of the four patents at issue in iRobot’s complaint. But the judge’s finding was what’s known as an initial determination, meaning parts of it are under review by the full ITC. The commission is expected to issue a final decision in March.
However the full ITC ruling comes down, Mark Barrocas insists that the conflict is about more than just robots and technology and patents. “There’s another aspect to all of this,” he says, “and that other aspect is the consumer. I believe that SharkNinja entering the robotic space has done absolute wonders for the consumer.” Units that cost as much as $1,000 price many people out of the market, Barrocas says, and were limiting home robots to 10 percent market penetration. “So I think when you look at the market, the consumer — whether it’s from us or from competitors — is getting the benefit of a competitive marketplace. And in the end, I think they’re paying less for better. And I think that’s what we’re all about.”
Meanwhile, after iRobot’s revenues and stock price soared during the pandemic, they have fallen sharply more recently. The company announced last summer that it was being acquired for about $1.7 billion by Amazon, a company that has sold tens of millions of its household Echo smart speakers and Ring video doorbells. (The deal is still awaiting regulatory approval, but Angle will reportedly continue to lead iRobot.)
iRobot, the company that turned robot vacuums into a household device, now finds itself at a crossroads. “If you are the iRobots of the world, what do you do?” asks Tucker Marion, the Northeastern business professor. The company could continue to invest in technology and features, but that’s expensive and may not deter competition or win customers. It could lower costs, but that risks harming margins and brand perception. How to proceed is the big choice facing iRobot, Marion says. “Strategically, that’s the decision. It’ll be very interesting to see what Amazon does with that.”
Of course, iRobot remains the leader in robot vacuums. Not long ago, the company sold its 40 millionth home robot, and Roombas continue to outsell offerings from a growing army of floor-cleaning robots. Meanwhile, the company continues to expand beyond its most-famous devices, looking to bring robots into more homes.
“So how do I feel?” Colin Angle asks. “If iRobot were [only] a vacuum cleaning company, and I had dedicated my life to making a robot vacuum cleaner, and here comes the competition, and I wasn’t well on my way to taking the next step and raising the bar, I could get all pissed off and feel like my life’s work was being robbed. But I feel like I’m still in the second pitch of the first inning of the journey.”
As for SharkNinja, it’s business as usual. In recent months, it has redesigned vacuums related to the ITC case. Those reconfigured Shark models involve none of the patents in dispute, the company says, and they’re already on store shelves. They’re said to be selling quite well.
John Wolfson is the editor of Boston College Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.