Zipline, a medical product delivery company launched in Rwanda, recently reached a total valuation of $1 billion. The company operates the world's only drone delivery system for urgent medicines such as blood and vaccines. It is among the most tested drone delivery services in the world, making it a leader in the fierce and competitive business. The company also received $190 million in new financing which it plans to use expand its medical supply delivery services across Africa, the Americas, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The company said it aims to serve 700 million people with its drones within the next five years.
Zipline was originally founded 2011 as Romotive by Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and William Hetzler after they graduated from Harvard University. They first produced an iPhone-controlled robotic pet toy called Romo. But CEO Keller Rinaudo wasn't convinced that Romo was the 'great big thing'; he wanted a product that would have a greater social impact. He and Hetzler and Wyrobek started travelling around the developing world to learn how drone-based logistics could help save lives.
On two separate trips to Tanzania in 2014, Rinaudo and Hetzler met a researcher working with a local NGO who had created a text-message-based health surveillance system. The project tracked hundreds of health emergencies across the country, including snakebites, rabies cases, and severe postpartum haemorrhaging. Unfortunately, reaching remote patients with treatment in time was usually cost-prohibitive or a logistic nightmare. They then came up with the idea to use drones to deliver the product to otherwise inaccessible areas. So, they refocused to delivering medical supplies using automated drones in 2014 and Romotive was shut down to pave way for Zipline.
Armed with this idea, Zipline's engineers got to work in Half Moon Bay, California. They designed and developed a machine with twin electric motors that could carry up to 1.5kg and operate in almost any weather. They decided that Rwanda would be ideal for their pilot program.
Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, poses numerous transport challenges itself. Many of Rwanda’s 406 health posts, 499 health centres, 44 district hospitals, and 4 referral hospitals countrywide can only be accessed via poorly maintained unpaved roads, especially those outside of the capital, Kigali. The hilly landscape additionally makes it difficult to travel by road using most vehicles.
The compact nature of Rwanda - the country is small and is home to little more than 12 million people - was an advantage as Zipline’s drones. The drones, which have a flight range of 150km, could serve nearly half the country from a single launch site. The American company then launched in Rwanda in October 2016 after signing a partnership deal with the Rwandan government. Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority changed its rules to allow the Zipline's drones to operate in the country.
The company started out with one distribution centre at Muhanga but they have since constructed several others. They make deliveries to dozens of hospitals and health facilities every day. They primarily deliver blood in medical emergencies - it now delivers more than 65% of Rwanda's blood supply outside of Kigali - but they also deliver platelets, fresh frozen plasma, cryoprecipitate, contraceptives, diagnostic test kits, emergency rabies vaccines, and drugs to treat HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. How it works: doctors make orders for the products they need through a simple app and Zipline makes the deliveries. Deliveries take approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Rwanda has completed over 10,000 deliveries of health supplies by medical drones.
Following its success in Rwanda, Zipline opened the first of four distribution centres in Ghana in April 2019. The service will operate 24/7. Each centre will be equipped with 30 drones that will deliver to 2000 health facilities serving 12 million people across the country. All 4 centres are expected to make 600 on-demand delivery flights a day.
The company plans to expand its medical supply delivery services across Africa, the Americas, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The $190 million in funding it plans to use to achieve this came in two phases: Phase I in spring 2018 where it raised $70-million from Katalyst Ventures, Baillie Gifford, GV, Temasek, Bright Success Capital, Goldman Sachs, Oakhouse Partners, Toyota Tsusho Corporation and the Design to Improve Life Fund and the newly-concluded Phase II worth US$120-million which included additional investments by Baillie Gifford and a new investor, The Rise Fund, a global Impact fund managed by TPG. The new investors join previous investors that include Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Google Ventures, and Stanford University.
Header Image Credit: MIT Technology Review