Innovation & Technology

Keller Rinaudo (Founder & CEO, Zipline): “Building drones is far from Zipline’s biggest challenge”

Over two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. In 2011, Rinaudo founded Zipline, a startup that builds drones and uses them to deliver blood bags and other medical necessities directly to clinics. First stop: Rwanda.

© Zipline

Over two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. In 2011, Rinaudo founded Zipline, a startup that builds drones and uses them to deliver blood bags and other medical necessities directly to clinics. First stop: Rwanda.


Leaders League. How did the idea behind Zipline first present itself?

Keller Rinaudo. Zipline's plan to use drones to overcome infrastructure challenges for medical deliveries came during my visit to the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania in 2014. There I met a graduate student who had built a mobile alert system for health workers to text emergency requests for medicine and vaccines. Health workers used the mobile alert system to make thousands of emergency requests, which had never before been possible. Unfortunately, there was no way for the government to fulfill these requests. It became clear that this was a “database of death” filled with thousands of names, addresses, ages, and phone numbers. Therefore, we've designed Zipline to solve the second half of this problem. We know who needs medicine, when and where. And now, we can get them that medicine as quickly as possible.
 
How do you get clients to trust an automated medical supplies delivery system?

The community's acceptance of our project in Rwanda has been wonderful. It takes a tremendous amount of work to bring each clinic online. First, we have to survey the flight path for each delivery site and create a sophisticated 3D map of the terrain and every obstacle the plane might encounter. Next, we have to train the hospital staff and all the technicians on how to request deliveries and what to do when packages start dropping from the sky by parachute. Then we work to reach out to the clinic's surrounding community to educate them on what we’re trying to do. We want the community to know that when they see our planes flying overhead they are on the way to help save someone’s life.  


How has Zipline dealt with the lack of up-to-date infrastructure in developing countries?

Health workers place an order by sending a text message on a verified mobile phone, but other than that, our platform is not operated by a long distance system. We have staff on the ground that work around the clock to keep our drone delivery service operational, and are rapidly updated on almost every part of the system based on feedback from the hospitals that we serve.  Many assume that the biggest challenge for us is building the drone technology. We've done that already, by building an autonomous aircraft from scratch that can deliver medical products to locations 75km away. But creating the vehicles is only a fraction of the complexity of the system. Zipline has set up a national drone delivery service, integrated it into a public health supply chain and built the infrastructure and equipment necessary to do a 50-150 flights per day, reliably and routinely.
 

Are there plans toapply Zipline to a different type of market?

Our mission is to ensure that everyone has reliable access to essential medical products. In pursuit of this mission, Zipline plans to expand services to countries across the developing world, delivering blood products, vaccines, treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and many other essential and lifesaving medicines.

 

 

N. V.

 

Find more analysis articles & interviews in our 2017 Innovation, Technology & IP Report.

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