With a name like iRobot, you might think this is a start-up company that's all hype and little substance. Or a sci-fi movie starring Will Smith. (Oh, wait, it is.)
But this pioneer in robotics is no fly-by-night operation. It has been around since 1990, and its first robot -- called Genghis -- is at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
iRobot's mission was to create a new consumer product category of robots that it promises "actually makes your life easier and more fun." So far, the company has done a good job. Over the past three years, the company has sold 1.2 million Roombas, which are sophisticated floor-vacuuming robots (there are five models). Shaped like a compact disc, a Roomba is quite versatile -- it can clean under beds, sense a "cliff" (and prevent itself from falling over it), and can even self-dock to recharge its batteries. All without its owner having to lift a finger. Roombas range in price from $149 to $329 per unit.
Leveraging the Roomba technology, iRobot recently launched Scooba, a high-tech mopping device. Unlike a traditional mop, which essentially spreads dirty water on the floor, Scooba continually applies only fresh water and cleaning solutions to a floor. It even sucks up crumbs before mopping and dries the floor when it's done.
What's more, iRobot has a line of government and industrial robots that sell from $50,000 to $115,000 per unit. One, the PackBot Scout, is designed for military missions in urban terrain and has already served nobly in battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last year, iRobot posted revenues of $95 million and profits of $219,000. For the first six months of 2005, revenues were $43 million, up from $28.6 million in the same period a year ago. However, the company still lost $7.2 million. So far, it offers fairly unique products, although it is probably still in the early-adopter phase. The question now is whether it can cross into the mainstream marketplace.
The key will be the Christmas season. Will robots become more mainstream with consumers? It's a tough call, though the upcoming IPO will certainly generate lots of buzz. And with money from the offering, the company can certainly plow more dollars into marketing.
iRobot's IPO is expected to hit the markets in the next month or so. The lead underwriters include Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, and the proposed ticker symbol is IRBT. The terms of the offering -- such as price and shares to be issued -- have yet to be disclosed.
Unfortunately, though, the IPO market hasn't given much love to money-losing companies of late. It has been the tech companies that really don't need capital -- like Google
Then again, the cinematic I, Robot brought in nearly $350 million at the box office. Where's Will Smith when you need him?
Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares of companies mentioned in this article.