“I just found Roboto merrily mopping the driveway!”

is how my wife greets me as I climb out of the shower. Our sparkly new robot vacuum cleaner, named Roboto by our sons, has quickly become part of our home. His scuttling round, like a wobbly crab-like creature, gathering up the trail left by our Home-Ed’ing family of six in the prior 24 hours. Perfect he is not. Essential he’s quickly become.

Robot vacuum cleaners and medtech

Understanding the need

We generate an extraordinary amount of fallout from the children’s lives: washing, tidying, meal clean-ups and more. A clean-freak I’m certainly not, but I’m keen to avoid being engulfed by the tidal wave of chaos. Until recently, we had the help of a friend who came round every week to help clean and tidy. It was invaluable. It was more than tidying and cleaning. Her gift to us was time. Family time. Released from household chores to spend precious time together, and I made sure I shared this with her regularly. She recently had to leave us to concentrate on her other jobs. This left us short on tidying and cleaning help, but more so, on time.  

This shortfall was compounded by me having an elective operation which we anticipated would wipe me out as Washer-in-Chief for a month. So, we had a shortfall of outside help and my own personal cleaning capacity was going to be whittled away. We put our thinking caps on.

Capital expenditure

I looked at our Henry vacuum cleaner, with its hose coiled in the cupboard. It was too soon post-op to think about lugging it round. Too heavy and cumbersome. What worked before, no longer did so. I started researching solutions online.  

Word of mouth from family had first introduced me to robot vacuum cleaners. In their early days, I understood they were around a thousand pounds for a half decent one, putting them out of reach. I read some reviews. I was surprised to see lots of positivity for one costing just over £150. Worth a try. A few clicks later and it was being summoned from a distant fulfilment centre, soon to arrive on our doorstep.  

What was it that led me to spend? Overcoming the financial barrier to entering the world of robot vacuum cleaning owners? Price point was key, coupled with positive reviews from seemingly unbiased reviewers. Set against the cost of £15 per hour for cleaning, I figured it compared favourably.  A week and a half’s worth of human help.  

Minimum viable product 

I unboxed it and charged it up. A small green light on its top glowing with increasing intent. I released it and it started pottering around, exploring its new territory. Anthropomorphised Roboto was born, no longer an ‘it’ but a ‘him’.

He’s not perfect. He bumps into things and gets stuck under others. Regularly I find him wedged dejectedly under a toilet or the staircase, his green light transformed into an amber glow of disappointment at a mission abandoned. He chews up socks and Nerf bullets, only to grind to a halt. He gets lost and can’t get himself back to base with any real reliability. But my goodness, he’s amazing.

I come down in the morning, put the coffee machine on and unleash him. He maps out the area, methodically ploughing tramlines in the crumbs and dirt of yesterday. He uncouples me from vacuum cleaning, allowing me to sit and drink a cup of coffee while the floor is sorted.  He pauses for breath and a recharge before being loaded up with soapy water and a mop attachment, to then leave a trail of soap sud water and a sparkling floor.  

How does he compare to human work? Inferior certainly, so why invest? Quite simply, he’s good enough.

In health tech and innovation more broadly there’s the concept of MVP or minimum viable product. The key in this is the viable component. Creating a perfect robot vacuum cleaner, fault-free is likely unachievable. The old adage of perfect is the enemy of good resonates deeply. The Pareto principle tells us that 80% of the value comes from 20% of the resource when it comes to development. Have Roboto’s makers delivered then… definitely.

Choosing our comparators is key. Benchmarking against a motivated, practised, human paid on a time-spent basis, is not likely the best comparison. Is the floor as clean as it would be with an hour of human attention? No. Is it dramatically improved compared with how it was when Roboto started? Definitely.  

It’s not (all) about the tech

For all of his intelligently designed inner workings, wifi enabled mapping of our floors, mobile-app based controls and battery life monitoring, ultimately he’s just a vacuum cleaner. So why is he worthy of attention? What can he tell us about health tech and innovation more generally?

He operates as a vacuum cleaner, but he is a step change too. He uncouples the cleaning process from human delivery. No longer is cleaning limited by the time I can spend doing it. He is generating time for me to focus on other things. I keep half an eye on his progress, available to unclog him when he’s chewed up an unsuspecting book or return him to base after he’s adventured out through the front door to tackle our driveway. He’s not entirely independent, and I’d like to think he doesn’t replace me. He’s got a very limited skill repertoire, unable to tackle the broad range of household needs like the washing or dinner preparation. This doesn’t mean he’s useless, just we need to know how to use him to maximum benefit. Knowing what he is and what he is not.  

Tech is ever-evolving and never stands still. What is true today, may well not be true tomorrow. There is a chronology to tech development and deployment. We’ve all witnessed and been part of wave after wave of tech that has become interwoven in the fabric of our lives. Prior to the pandemic, meetings were usually in-person or perhaps by phone, and we met people at them. During the pandemic, not only did online meetings become part of daily life, they were soon just ‘meetings’. Similarly, we no longer ‘e-meet’ people when we are introduced over email or video calls, we just ‘meet’. The tech quickly ceases to be the focus. Soon, it is the opportunity that it gives us that rightly gains centre stage.  

Lessons for medtech

Medtech is a diverse sector, bound by a common goal. We aim to realise benefits for patients and clinicians of using tech to support better healthcare. It can contribute on two levels, improving quality and efficiency. Currently the strongest offerings aim to augment and amplify the impact of clinicians, rather than replacing us all together. Looking at tasks that can be done quite well enough by non-human delivery, frees up the scarce resource of clinician time to focus on those elements that are for now, exclusively human. 

Meet Dr Richard Pratt and our team on our team page.

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