Country of origin: England
Year came to U.S.: 1972
Education: BS Mechanical Engineering and
MS Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Business: iRobot (1990), Aria Insights (2008)
Headquarters: Bedford, MA (iRobot)
2019 revenue: $1.2 billion (iRobot)
Worldwide employment: 920 (iRobot)
Helen Greiner’s love of robots started with R2D2 in Star Wars.
She and the company she co-founded, iRobot, have demonstrated that robots are one of today’s most important emerging technologies.
Helen Greiner’s father was a refugee from Hungary who met her mother at the University of London. The family moved from England to the United States when she was five years old. But the defining moment of her childhood came when she was 10 and saw the movie Star Wars. She was captivated with the character of R2D2 and vowed to create her own robot. That vow has guided the rest of her life.
Greiner attended MIT to study robotics and artificial intelligence. On her first day there she befriended Colin Angle who shared her love of robots. She worked in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory headed by Rodney Brooks. These three roboticists, Greiner, Angle and Brooks, developed an ambitious plan to build affordable robots that could be used in everyday life. The plan was ambitious because the few robots that existed at that time were very expensive and used mostly in industrial settings. The idea of everyday use of robots was still the stuff of science fiction.
In 1990, they founded a company called IS Robotics. They financed their plan with bank loans and credit cards and stayed afloat working 18-hour days building robots for university researchers. Greiner secured $35 million in venture capital financing and created the company’s Government & Industrial Robots division.
The company, now called iRobot, has delivered more than 5,000 government and industrial robots including PackBots, which were used in the rescue effort after the September 11 attacks and for search and bomb-disposal in Iraq and Afghanistan. Greiner was also one of three people to design the first version of the popular robotic vacuum cleaner, the Roomba. To date, the company has sold more than 20 million home robots worldwide.
In 2005, Greiner led the company through its initial public offering. Three years later she stepped down as chair of the iRobot board to start a new company, CyPhyWorks, which is developing robotic aerial vehicles. In 2014, she was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship by President Obama. In 2017 she left CyPhyWorks to work as an adviser to the U.S. Army. In 2019, CyPhyWorks rebranded itself as Aria Insights as it shifted focus to analytics software before ultimately shutting down. In 2020, Greiner joined a new company, Tertill, which uses robotics to maintain gardens.
To learn more about the work of immigrants in artificial intelligence, explore the blog post Beyond the buzz: immigrant entrepreneurs and artificial intelligence.
Updated November 2021