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The little robot that could

June 22, 2019
Root is controlled using an iPad app that has three different levels of coding, allowing students as young as four years old to learn the fundamentals of programming. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

iRobot Corp. announced its acquisition of Root Robotics, Inc., whose educational Root coding robot got its start as a summer research project at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in 2011 and subsequently developed into a robust learning tool that is being used in over 500 schools to teach children between the ages of four and twelve how to code in an engaging, intuitive way. iRobot plans to incorporate the Root robot into its growing portfolio of educational robot products, and continue the work of scaling up production and expanding Root’s programming content that began when Root Robotics was founded by former Wyss Institute members in 2017.

The Root robot can be programmed to perform a variety of actions based on what students draw on a whiteboard, including avoid obstacles, play music, and flash its lights. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“We’re honored that we got to see a Wyss Institute technology go from its earliest stages to where we are today, with the opportunity to make a gigantic impact on the world,” said Zivthan Dubrovsky, former Bioinspired Robotics Platform Lead at the Wyss Institute and co-founder of Root Robotics who is now the General Manager of Educational Robots at iRobot. “We’re excited to see how this new chapter in Root’s story can further amplify our mission of making STEM education accessible to students of any age in any classroom around the world.”

Root began in the lab of Wyss Core Faculty Member and Bioinspired Robotics Platform co-lead Radhika Nagpal, Ph.D., who was investigating the idea of robots that could climb metal structures using magnetic wheels. “Most whiteboards in classrooms are backed with metal, so I thought it would be wonderful if a robot could automatically erase the whiteboard as I was teaching – ironically, we referred to it as a ‘Roomba® for whiteboards,’ because many aspects were directly inspired by iRobot’s Roomba at the time,” said Nagpal, who is also the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Once we had a working prototype, the educational potential of this robot was immediately obvious. If it could be programmed to detect ink, navigate to it, and erase it, then it could be used to teach students about coding algorithms of increasing complexity.”

That prototype was largely built by Raphael Cherney, first as a Research Engineer in Nagpal’s group at Harvard in 2011, and then beginning in 2013 when he was hired to work on developing Root full-time along with Dubrovsky and other members of the Wyss Institute. “When Raphael and Radhika pitched me the idea of Root, I fell in love with it immediately,” said Dubrovsky. “My three daughters were all very young at the time and I wanted them to have exposure to STEM concepts like coding and engineering, but I was frustrated by the lack of educational systems that were designed for children their age. The idea of being able to create that for them was really what motivated me to throw all my weight behind the project.”

Under Cherney and Dubrovsky’s leadership, Root’s repertoire expanded to include drawing shapes on the whiteboard as it wheeled around, navigating through obstacles drawn on the whiteboard, playing music, and more. The team also developed Root’s coding interface, which has three levels of increasing complexity that are designed to help students from preschool to high school easily grasp the concepts of programming and use them to create their own projects. “The tangible nature of a robot really brings the code to life, because the robot is ‘real’ in a way that code isn’t – you can watch it physically carrying out the instructions that you’ve programmed into it,” said Cherney, who co-founded Root Robotics and is now a Principal Systems Engineer at iRobot. “It helps turn coding into a social activity, especially for kids, as they learn to work in teams and see coding as a fun and natural thing to do.”

Over the next three years the team iterated on Root’s prototype and began testing it in classrooms in and around Boston, getting feedback from students and teachers to get the robot closer to its production-ready form. “Robots are very hard to build, and the support we had from the Wyss Institute let us do it right, instead of just fast,” said Cherney. “We were able to develop Root from a prototype to a product that worked in schools and was doing what we envisioned, and the whole process was much smoother than it would have been if we had just been a team working in a garage.”

By 2016, they felt ready for commercialization. They ran a Kickstarter® campaign as a market test to see if they had a viable consumer business, and raised nearly $400,000 from almost 2,000 backers, far exceeding their target of $250,000. Buoyed by this vote of confidence from potential customers, Dubrovsky and Cherney left the Wyss Institute in the summer of 2017 to co-found Root Robotics with Nagpal serving as Scientific Advisor and $2.5 million in seed funds, and a license from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development. While most of their time at the Wyss Institute was spent getting the robot right, the company focused on getting the content of Root’s programming app up to par, setting up a classroom in their office and inviting students to come try out the robot, then updating their content with insights learned from those experiences.

Once they achieved their vision for three different levels of programming targeting students of different ages, they shipped Root robots to their Kickstarter backers and made it available for purchase on their website in September 2018. Since then, over a million coding projects have been run on the Root app. “What’s been most rewarding for me personally is seeing my kids take Root to their classrooms and show their teachers and their peers what they’ve been able to make a robot do. Getting to see them problem-solve and iterate and then achieve something they’re proud of is priceless,” said Dubrovsky. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by seeing people come up with new things to do with the robot that we never thought of,” added Cherney. “The way it seems to immediately unlock creativity is beautiful and inspiring.”

The Root robot has tremendous value as a tool for teaching students not only coding, but also concepts of AI, engineering and autonomous robots, all of which are very important for our future.

Colin Angle, iRobot
Root Robotics co-founders Raphael Cherney (left) and Zee Dubrovsky (center) are joining iRobot’s Educational Robotics division. Root started as a project in the lab of Wyss Faculty member Radhika Nagpal (right). Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“One of the things that really attracted us to Root was that it was designed as an education product from the ground up, which fits perfectly with our own deep passion for using robots as a way of turbo charging STEM education,” said Colin Angle, chairman and CEO of iRobot. “The Root robot has tremendous value as a tool for teaching students not only coding, but also concepts of AI, engineering and autonomous robots, all of which are very important for our future.”

Nagpal is still sometimes floored by the fact that what started as an idea for a simple whiteboard-erasing robot ended up developing into such a robust teaching tool. “Without the Wyss Institute, I would not have even thought to try and commercialize this idea,” she said. “It supported an amazing team of engineers in creating and testing Root over several years, which allowed us to be able to raise the funds to launch the company with a product that was so well-developed that it now has the potential to really scale up and make a big difference in the world.”

“Root Robotics is one of the great success stories to come out of the Wyss Institute, partially because of how quickly the team recognized its potential impact and focused on de-risking it both technically and commercially,” said Wyss Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D. “It was fantastic to see Root take root at the Institute, and we are immensely proud of them and their ability to develop a technology that can truly bring about positive change in our world by targeting children who are the creators and visionaries of tomorrow.” Ingber is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

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