She, Robot

A Conversation With Helen Greiner

Helen Greiner

  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Title: CEO of CyPhyWorks
  • Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Known For: Co-founding iRobot
  • Website: CyPhy Works


Born in the United Kingdom, Helen Greiner moved to the United States with her parents when she was five. In 1990, soon after getting a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in computer science, both from MIT, she teamed up with a professor and a fellow student to found iRobot, a company devoted to making practical robots for consumers, businesses, and the military. Among its many products, the company developed the PackBot, a small mobile robot that can scout out dangerous situations, and the Roomba, a vacuuming robot designed for home use. The company went public in 2005. In 2008, Greiner left to found CyPhy Works, a start-up focusing on flying robots, or drones. Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose spoke to her in early November.

What first got you interested in robots?
When I was 11, I went to the cinema and saw Star Wars and fell in love with R2-D2—because he had a character, a personality, an agenda to save the universe. He seemed more than a machine. I’ve been intrigued with building things that are more than machines ever since.

Is it true that you were crushed when you found out there was actually a person inside?
Yes. I was quizzing my brother on Star Wars trivia—he had learned it all—and when we got to the fact that Kenny Baker played R2-D2, I said, “What do you mean, someone played R2-D2? I thought it was a robot!” (By the way, we learned in the first episodes that R2-D2 actually got around by flying, because he couldn’t get around those jungles, or Tatooine, or up stairs with the rolling. So that’s why I had to do flying robots.)

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

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