Before he got serious about testing delivery drones, before he bought a Massachusetts company that makes warehouse robots, and even before he launched the Kindle e-reader, Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos had a connection to iRobot, the Bedford maker of military robots and the Roomba line of autonomous vacuums.
The relationship was never announced — Bezos became a strategic adviser to the company, not a board member — and even industry analysts who follow iRobot weren’t aware of it. But for several years starting in 2004, Bezos visited iRobot’s offices, participated in strategy sessions held at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , and became a mentor to iRobot chief executive Colin Angle, who cofounded the company in 1990.
“He recognized early on that robots were a very disruptive game-changer,” Angle says of Bezos. “His curiosity about our space led to a very cool period of time where I could count upon him for a unique perspective.”
Bezos is no longer actively advising the company, but his impact on the local tech scene has only grown larger. In 2008, Bezos’ investment firm provided initial funding for Rethink Robotics, a Boston company that makes simple-to-program manufacturing robots. Four years later, Amazon paid $775 million for North Reading-based Kiva, which makes robots that transport merchandise in warehouses. Also in 2012, Amazon opened a research and software development outpost in Cambridge that has done work on consumer electronics products like the Echo, a Wi-Fi-connected speaker that responds to voice commands.
Rodney Brooks, an iRobot cofounder who is now chief technology officer of Rethink, says he met Bezos at the annual TED Conference. Bezos was aware of work that Brooks, a professor emeritus at MIT, had done on robot navigation and control strategies. Helen Greiner, the third cofounder of iRobot, says she met Bezos at a different technology conference, in 2004.
Shortly after that, she recruited him as an adviser to iRobot. Bezos also made an investment in the company, which was privately held at the time.
“He gave me a number of memorable insights,” Angle says. “He said, ‘Just because you won a bet doesn’t mean it was a good bet.’ Roomba might have been lucky. He was challenging us to think hard about where we were going and how to leverage our success.”
On visits to iRobot, Greiner recalls, “he’d shake everyone’s hand and learn their names. He got them engaged.” She says one of the key pieces of advice Bezos supplied was about the value of open APIs — the application programming interfaces that allow other software developers to write software that talks to a product like the Roomba, expanding its functionality. The advice was followed. (Amazon also offers a range of APIs that help developers build things for its products.)
By spending time with iRobot, Bezos gave employees a sense they were on the right track. “We were all believers that robotics would be huge,” says former iRobot exec Tom Ryden. “But when someone like that comes along and pays attention, it’s a big deal.”
Angle says that Bezos was an adviser “in a very formative, important moment in our history,” and while they discussed “ideas about what practical robots could do, and what they could be,” Angle doesn’t want to speculate about what, exactly, Bezos gleaned from the affiliation.
But Greiner says she believes “there was learning on both sides. We already had a successful consumer product with Roomba, and he had not yet launched the Kindle. He was learning from us about successful consumer products and robotics.” (Unfortunately, Bezos and Amazon’s public relations department would not comment.) The relationship trailed off around 2007 as Bezos got busier — right around when Amazon launched the Kindle, Greiner says.
Since then, Bezos and Amazon have stayed mum about most of their activity in the state. His Bezos Expeditions investment team is still an investor in Rethink, which earlier this month announced its second product, a $29,000, one-armed robot called Sawyer that can do precise tasks, such as testing circuit boards.
The warehouse-focused Kiva Systems group has been on a hiring tear, and now employs more than 500 people, according to LinkedIn. In December, Amazon said that it had 15,000 of the squat orange Kiva robots moving around racks of merchandise in 10 of its 50 distribution centers.
Greiner left iRobot in 2008 to start her own company, Danvers-based CyPhy Works, which sells tethered unmanned aircraft, aka drones, that can surveil and inspect the terrain below. Bezos hasn’t invested in that company — and Greiner didn’t want to discuss why.
In late 2013, Bezos announced on “60 Minutes” that Amazon had assembled a team to build and test-fly drones capable of delivering packages to customers. Greiner says that we’re at least five years away from flying robots ferrying cardboard boxes overhead, but companies like Amazon and Google have the money to invest in that sort of long-range project.
Greiner says her company eventually plans to also build delivery drones — potentially selling them to Amazon or its competitors. “It’s absolutely on our road map,” she says, noting that CyPhy is developing the sensors, the on-board intelligence, and the endurance capabilities that delivery drones will need. “I think we’re on the path,” says the woman who first brought Bezos to Boston.