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Drone startup Zipline says drones are really needed for health care, not burritos

CEO Keller Rinaudo talks about the opportunities in delivering blood by drone.

Zipline, the company that launched the world’s first drone delivery program for medical supplies in Rwanda last month, announced it raised $25 million in funding today, with investments from venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital. Visionnaire Ventures led the latest funding round, which brings the drone company’s total capital raised to $43 million.

Last month, the Rwandan government launched a program with Zipline to deliver blood to clinics in the western part of the country, in collaboration with the UPS Foundation, the parcel service’s charitable arm, and Gavi, a vaccine fund backed by Bill Gates.

As the program continues to roll out, the plan is to eventually service 21 clinics in Rwanda, flying between 50 and 150 on-demand deliveries a day. Delivering blood by drone costs about the same as traditional motorbike delivery, which can be slowed by poor road conditions and isn’t always an option during the country’s long rainy season. Clinics often lack resources to properly store blood, and drones are able to reach clinics within 30 minutes of receiving an order.

“Where this is really needed is health care. Doctors say as soon as you can solve this in Rwanda, you can get started in the U.S. because we have the same health care problems in rural areas with getting access to areas that are difficult to reach. It’s not burritos versus lifesaving medicine,” Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline, said Thursday to Recode Senior Editor Ina Fried at An Evening with Code Mobile conference taking place at Ericsson’s Santa Clara offices.

Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline, at Code Mobile
Adam Tow for Recode

Alphabet’s Project Wing got an FAA waiver to trial burrito delivery by drone earlier this year to students at Virginia Tech. Still, in the United States, commercial drone delivery is unlikely to come to fruition beyond small trials like this until at least 2020.

But in August, Zipline announced a partnership with the White House to demonstrate the “viability of unmanned aircraft technology in disseminating critical care supplies to remote communities in the United States.” Practical applications, like delivering medical supplies by drone, might take flight sooner than food delivery.

Even with White House support, the company still needs to get special FAA approval to fly out of line of sight in U.S. airspace, which is currently illegal under FAA rules. But Keller says the FAA wants to start using drones where it makes the most sense, like with delivering medical supplies. According to the White House announcement, once the U.S. program is under way, dronetests will take place in Maryland, Nevada and Washington, including deliveries to Native American reservations.

Keller Rinaudo is the co-founder and CEO of Zipline. Before Zipline, he founded the robotics company Romotive. Rinaudo is also a software engineer and previously built computers out of RNA and DNA that work in human cells. He is a graduate of Harvard University.

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