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iRobot Goes to the Hospital

But it’s doing very, very well.
February 2, 2012

iRobot Corp., makers of the beloved Roomba (and a lot more), announced that it would be investing $6 million in InTouch Health, a telemedicine company operating in 80 hospitals around the world. Though $6 million represents just a minority stake in the company, it’s–needless to say–a substantial investment, and a strong expansion of a joint development and licensing agreement the two companies had announced last summer.

Though the Roomba robo-vacuum is probably what put iRobot on your radar, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the company does. iRobot. I attended an iRobot event last year, and was surprised to learn that much of what the company makes is for the military–for instance, the 510 Packbot, which is tasked with disarming bombs. iRobot Packbots have also been at hand at Fukushima in the wake of last year’s tsunami.

Given the company’s broad interests (and success–it brought in $465 million in revenues last year, per InformationWeek), it makes sense for iRobot to set its sights on the hospital ward as a new frontier. InTouch is a good partner, “as one of the first developers of FDA-cleared telemedicine devices,” iRobot CEO Colin Angle said in a press release.

What sorts of products will a stronger iRobot/InTouch partnership yield? It’s too soon to say for sure, but Angle and others have dropped hints that the team will be wanting to build on iRobot’s Ava, a tablet-compatible telepresence robot. ForbesVideo was at CES this year, and gives a good introduction:

Part of the idea of the partnership, to judge from Angle’s statements, is simply to make telemedicine bots more user-friendly. Currently, the real technophiles among physicians’ ranks may use InTouch Health’s current robot. “But more sophisticated technology would make these robots easier to use by a broader class of physicians,” Angle told InformationWeek, “not just the technological enthusiasts.”

Healthcare robotics is rapidly becoming a crowded field–Toyota showed off some if its robotic nurses recently, and robotic exoskeletons are restoring mobility to the paralyzed–but with iRobot’s track record and name brand, combined with InTouch’s experience already doing Grand Rounds, the two have an early-mover advantage.

Indeed, Angle already seems so certain of the new venture’s success in the hospital that he appears to be looking into the next, related, and potentially much larger market: home-care. “If we have proven technologies that work in a hospital setting, we’ll be looking at a cost-reduction exercise to translate that experience to the home,” he said. In the not-too-distant future, medical telepresence robots may not just be a staple in hospitals, but in the homes of the ailing and elderly, too.

All of which points to another instance in which new technology enables a throwback: With telepresence bots in the home, maybe we’ll see a resurgence (and modification) of an almost extinct medical practice–call it the robotic house call.

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