Meet Helen Greiner: robot enthusiast, CEO of CyPhy Works and CoFounder of iRobot

Do you have a Roomba roaming around your house? Thank Helen Greiner, cofounder of iRobt and CEO of CyPhy Works. Her list of accolades is seemingly endless. From her bio on CyPhy Works:

She has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science from MIT. She was named by the Kennedy School at Harvard in conjunction with the U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders.  She has also been honored as a Technology Review Magazine “Innovator for the Next Century” and has been awarded theDEMO God Award and DEMO Lifetime Achievement Award. She was named one of the Ernst and Young New England Entrepreneurs of the Year, invited to the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader of Tomorrow and Young Global Leader, and has been inducted in the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame.

That’s just a snippet of her many awards. We could go on, but we would be going on a long time. Instead, we’ve brought you an interview with one of the most influential people in the drone world, Helen Greiner.

Drone Girl: You’ve said in the past that your love of robots started with R2D2. He was your role model?
Helen Greiner: It’s more of an inspiration or a muse, than a role model.

DG: Who were your role models when you first got into robotics?
HG: I always respected academic role models. At the time they were mostly all men, and that’s changed over time which is great. It was a bit different when I was in school in the 80s and 90s.

DG: Were those role models at MIT?
HG: I went to MIT because I saw a robotics competition on the Discovery Channel called 2.70. It’s now used in high schools across the country. It’s been so successful in inspiring kids to go into STEM.

DG: So you’ve obviously been in the robotics field for a long time. You created the Roomba among other things. But at what point did you decide you were going to go from ground robots to drones?
HG: I did iRobot for 18 years. We built some of the best ground robots. Back in the 90s, we said, “let’s not do drones because it’s a crowded field.” Well of course, now it’s an even more crowded field. But I started thinking about what to do next. I was always jealous of drones because they essentially cheat. There’s all kinds of stuff on the ground that ground robots need to avoid or step over. In the air, there is so much more free space. There are no tables or chairs to run into. Once you get above the tree-level, there is really nothing else there. It’s an ideal space for robots to operate.

DG: But with drones, you have other problems that you don’t have with ground robots. You have to worry about battery life, which currently tops out around 25 minutes to power a flying robot in the air. Though, it seems like you have solved it through the microfilament technology you created.
HG: We’ve certainly solved it for the applications that we are working on. We’ve created the PARC system. You can fly it for weeks at a time.
It is for people that are interested in monitoring their own facility, rather than someone else’s. Another drone we are building is called the Pocket Flyer. It can go a few hundred feet and into tunnels and buildings. Without a cable, you really lose communications when you go into buildings. This solves that problem.

DG: Going back to the “Drone Girl” topic, what has your experience been being a female in the drone industry?
HG: When I was younger, it was a double-edged sword. I would go to meetings and be the only woman there, which some people might take as a negative. But you can use it as a positive. People would remember me and say, “well, that’s the robot lady.” I’ve always felt welcome in the industry.

DG: Your company, CyPhy Works is interesting in that the majority of the leadership on your team is female.
HG: It wasn’t by design. The best qualified candidates happened to be female. As long as companies are looking for the best people, it doesn’t matter, male or female. We don’t go out of our way to hire women. It’s just, these are the people who applied and are the best qualified.

DG: What advice do you have for people, especially young women, getting into robotics?
HG: When you’re young, build stuff. It doesn’t matter what it is. Robots, drones, electronic-moving jewelry. Learn how to build stuff and debug – go through that process.
Robotics is happening at small companies. Join a small company when you’re young. What’s great about this company is you can try something, have a line on your resume, and if it doesn’t work, then move on. Not all countries have that.

DG: Anything else you want to say?
HG: I think women and men are both attracted to robotics. At the end of the day, your creation can be “more than a machine” which is why I was attracted to R2D2, and it’s not a guy thing or a girl thing. It’s a person thing.


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