“I want robots to exist. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur.”

There’s no mistaking what drives Helen Greiner ’89, SM ’90: “I passionately want the world filled with robots.”

In a conversation with Foreign Affairs for a special issue on entrepreneurship, Greiner dates her love of robots back to a childhood infatuation with R2-D2, and reflects on her experiences as a cofounder of iRobot, of Roomba fame. And she explains why her new start-up, CyPhy Works, focuses on the flying robots commonly known as drones.

While passion has been a key ingredient in Greiner’s success, she hints at another, quieter attribute—patience—throughout her interview with editor Gideon Rose.

  • What are the most important qualities for a successful entrepreneur?

    Persistence—just in case that first idea you have isn’t the one that is a billion-dollar idea. Being able to keep at it and get through any roadblocks.

  • How has that played out in your own career? What did you need persistence to overcome?

    Well, we started iRobot in 1990, and it wasn’t until 1998 that we took the first investment capital. It wasn’t until 2005 that we took it public. It was the longest overnight success you’ll ever see.

  • Most start-ups fail; most entrepreneurs don’t succeed. A lot of people can be persistent, but they can persistently fail. Is success just a matter of luck and timing?

    I don’t think it’s just luck and timing; it’s more about being able to have a great idea but also have the right timing for it. Uber, for example, wouldn’t have been successful in the ’90s, because people weren’t carrying smartphones.

    It’s the same with the robots. A great example is drone delivery. It’s something to be thinking about now, but it’s probably not something to do now, because some of the technology hasn’t been created and some regulatory and cultural barriers are still there. So our strategy is to put the pieces in place now, get the technologies ready, so that we’re ready to do it in five years, because that’s when I think the timing is going to be right.

As for the name of her new company (shorthand for “Cyber Physical”), it is a wink at a genre that Greiner does not, she tells Rose, necessarily wish to emulate:

  • Are we going to see robots in the future that are humanoid, androids like the ones in science fiction?

    There are seven billion people in the world, and almost all of them are very good at being people. We’re not trying to duplicate people. We’re trying to help them; make them more efficient, better at their jobs; empower them to do more with robotic technology.

Read the full interview (or stream an audio version) at Foreign Affairs.

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