Saving lives one drone at a time

How one entrepreneur is getting emergency blood supplies to people in the remotest parts of Africa

An entrepreneur in Africa Zipline_1140x346

In 30 seconds:

  • How one drone start-up is revolutionising healthcare logistics in Africa.
  • Zipline was recognised by London Business School’s Real Innovation Awards in 2019
  • Zipline aims to serve 700 million people over the next five years

When Silicon Valley robotics entrepreneur Keller Rinaudo visited The Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania in 2014 he discovered a ‘database of death’.

He was there to see a mobile alert system for health workers to text emergency requests for medicine and vaccines.

Thanks to this government system, health workers made thousands of emergency requests – which had never been possible before. But there was no way for the government to fulfil all these requests.

The database was a list of the thousands of names, addresses, ages and phone numbers of people who had died, often for want of a basic medicine or a blood transfusion.

Instead of extending existing conventional solutions – to pave roads and run couriers to remote communities – Rinaudo decided to apply his entrepreneurial and engineering acumen to the problem.


The ‘last mile’

It is estimated that more than two billion people across the world cannot access the medicine they need to survive because of 'last mile' transportation challenges. So with no infrastructure to plug into, an autonomous delivery drone network was the answer – a concept that became Zipline.

“Aid alone won't solve this problem,” says Zipline Chief Executive Rinaudo. “It's not a scalable and self-sustaining solution. Billions of people lack adequate access to medicine. We believe that a mission-driven, private technology company working in partnership with forward-thinking and innovative public officials and health providers can help solve the access problem once and for all.

Rwanda's mud roads are a great example of the obstacles faced distributing medical supplies in the developing world. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has advocated for technology’s role in rebuilding in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide and was the first African leader to see Zipline’s potential.

In October 2016, Zipline secured an initial contract to deliver blood to 21 hospitals in Rwanda before it extended the service nationwide, putting most of the country's 12 million citizens within reach of a lifesaving delivery at 450 facilities.

Rwanda’s Zipline network is the world’s first and only national-scale instant drone delivery service.

That is why London Business School has recognised Zipline at the Real Innovation Awards run by the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Zipline triumphed in The Harnessing the Winds of Change category – given to those who spot what’s just around the corner soon enough to take advantage of it.

The Real Innovation Awards is an annual ceremony celebrating business innovation around the world, hosted by the London Business School’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE).

“What Zipline have done is remarkable. They are redefining entrepreneurship.”

RIA judges were impressed by the timing of Zipline's innovation and the outsized impact it has created for the communities it serves. It wasn't that what Zipline has done is fundamentally novel, but how skilfully they have brought together a number of burgeoning technologies.

“What Zipline has done is remarkable,” says Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. “They are redefining what entrepreneurship is all about. They are at the cutting edge of drone development at the moment the technology matures.”


What next for Rwanda and Zipline?

Zipline is now delivering more than 75% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of the capital, Kigali. In addition to its impact on lifesaving emergencies, instant drone delivery has helped ensure that hospitals always have access to blood products, increasing the use of some blood products by 175% and reducing waste and spoilage to almost zero.

In April 2019, Zipline partnered with the Government of Ghana to launch the first of four distribution centres that will serve 2,000 health facilities and a population of 12 million people across the country.

In September of 2019, Zipline announced that it will expand its service to India as a part of a government initiative to put 120 million people within range of instant medical delivery by drone. In December of 2019 Zipline announced a planned expansion into the Philippines.

Zipline has also been working with the US Department of Defense to show how Zipline's logistics network of autonomous delivery drones could help transform emergency medicine and critical care in conflict, as well as in humanitarian and disaster relief scenarios.

The business has attracted investors including Baillie Gifford, Goldman Sachs, Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, GV, The Rise Fund, a global impact fund managed by TPG, Katalyst Ventures, Temasek, Toyota Tsusho Corporation, and Stanford University.

Mike Stone, Chief Investment Officer of The Rise Fund, said in May 2019: “Zipline is not just a drone company, but rather a transformative technology business using next-generation logistical solutions to provide lifesaving services. We are thrilled to be partnering with Keller and his team as they bring vital healthcare provisioning to markets all over the world. Zipline is a compelling example of what we search for with The Rise Fund: companies helping to solve our world’s most complex societal problems.”

The investment also saw Rise Fund partner Bono, the U2 lead singer and global humanitarian activist, join Zipline’s Board of Directors.


A solar powered, sustainable future

In the short term Zipline aims to serve up to 140 million people in countries across Africa, India and very soon the United States.

“We've flown millions of miles over three continents and are delivering to hospitals serving over 20 million people,” says Rinaudo. “Our goal is to serve 700 million people in the next five years.”

Drones are among a range of technologies that are set to transform the continent. Solar power is promising to take Africa from dark nights with noisy generators and fumy kerosene lamps straight into a solar powered, sustainable future, skipping the step of building a grid network. Bulbs, batteries and solar panels are now widely available across Africa.

Rinaudo believes Africa and other developing nations can leapfrog more developed nations with legacy infrastructure through technology. It is a similar story to M-Pesa, whose mobile banking platform has overcome people's mistrust of traditional banks through mobile-to-mobile payments. In fact, Zipline uses M-Pesa's off-the-peg mobile systems to handle payments and GPS on board their 'Zip' drones.

As Rinaudo noted in his 2017 TED talk, the developing world needs entrepreneurs because NGOs and state aid alone are not going to employ hundreds of millions of young Africans. The continent is finding its own solutions.



The Real Innovation Awards is an annual ceremony celebrating business innovation around the world, hosted by the London Business School’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE)


Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital

This article was provided by the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital whose aim is to inspire entrepreneurs and investors to pursue impactful innovation by equipping them with the tools, expertise and insights to drive growth.