iRobot cofounder and CEO Colin Angle compared his journey toward becoming a successful entrepreneur to flying an airplane as you build it.
“On the inside of the plane it looks like unchanging, constant peril,” Angle explained.
He addressed more than 150 students, faculty and staff in the Raytheon Amphitheater on Thursday — the inaugural lecture in the Northeastern University Presidential Speaker Series entitled Profiles in Innovation.
President Joseph E. Aoun hosted the program, which is designed to bring the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship. More than 100 watched the hour-long event live on Facebook or on a screen in a separate room accommodating the overflow audience.
“Our purpose is to invite innovative speakers who are working at the intersection of various fields because that’s what we are doing at Northeastern,” Aoun said. “We are conducting interdisciplinary, use-inspired research that impacts society on a global level.”
iRobot, a pioneering force in the robot industry for consumer, government and industrial markets worldwide, was cofounded by Angle in 1990. Over the last two decades, he and his team have transformed the robot from factory drone to a member of the domestic and military family with the award-winning Roomba, an autonomous home vacuum cleaner, and the PackBot, a search and bomb-disposal robot stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Watching the MSE-6 series droid lead the Storm Troopers against the rebel alliance in the epic space opera “Star Wars” inspired Angle to build robots with practical applications, he said. “I thought about what practical role robots could play in our lives,” Angle explained. “There are many dirty, ugly challenges that occupy our time that don’t need to be done by people.”
iRobot has been a longtime partner of Northeastern. Since 2001, more than 90 students have completed a co-op with the robot manufacturer. “We get tremendous value from our co-ops,” Angle said. “It’s a win-win.”
After the lecture, Angle took questions from the audience and submitted by viewers on Facebook and Twitter.
Angle, who holds both a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science from MIT, responded to one student who questioned the value of a college education. “The mentoring I received from working with my professors prepared me to do what I do,” he said. “The skills . . . to create and scale companies are learnable skills” that can be honed by building strong relationships with faculty and fellow students.
Prior to Angle’s address, Aoun played a fun video of his encounter with a Roomba, during which he performed a modified version of the Cha-cha-cha while sweeping the floor with his robotic friend.
“Now the video is on my laptop,” Angle quipped. “I’m not saying where it will go next.”
Aoun will host a conversation with pioneering airspace sculptor Janet Echelman in the next Profiles in Innovation event on Dec. 1. Combining ancient craft with cutting-edge technology, the innovative artist transforms urban space by creating building-scale sculpture environments that continuously change by melding with the forces of nature, including wind, water and light.