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Meet Zipline, a drone startup that's dropping medicine by parachute in Rwanda's backcountry

Working in a developing country gives Zipline more flexibility for development and testing.


Google, Amazon, DJI and scores of other companies are building their drone businesses in the U.S. and China. The heavyweights have leaned hard on American and Chinese regulators, because of course they want to operate in the world’s two biggest markets.

Zipline is a drone startup with a different take. The drone delivery service operates in one country, Rwanda, and it delivers medicine via unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to places that are hard to reach by conventional means. Though Zipline was founded five years ago, the company’s founders are taking it out of stealth this week and announcing a slew of big-name investors like Sequoia Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, Subtraction Capital and Stanford University. In total, the company says it has raised around $18 million.

Other drone makers with global ambitions — DJI and Amazon, in particular — have shown off or currently sell drones that take off from the ground like helicopters. The Zip looks more like a plane, and it’s launched with a slingshot, delivering its cargo with a parachute before returning home. Co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo says this design is what “made sense” for the Zipline model.

The Periscoped test run showed off a successful delivery of a blood packet, though Rinaudo and other execs indicated that this was a baby step toward larger ambitions for creating a worldwide drone delivery network for more than just medical purposes.

Rinaudo and Zipline’s pitch sounds both wildly ambitious and totally plausible. By building its first delivery networks in developing countries that give companies more flexibility, Zipline gets to operate in kind of a “sandbox” environment while doing something that will obviously help a great number of people in need. But making that possible requires cooperating with a government that aims to be on the bleeding edge of development in Africa at the expense of democratic freedoms.

Last fall, design firms competed for the chance to build a “droneport” in Rwandan capital Kigali; the city is the crown jewel of President Paul Kagame’s multi-decade effort to reform the war-ridden country into the poster child for successful development in Africa.

Kagame has invested resources in entrepreneurship programs and talked a big game about bringing tech innovation (and Silicon Valley) to the country, which he has led since taking office in 2000.

Zipline co-founder Will Hetzler, whom Rinaudo referred to as the startup’s policy guy (both are Harvard alums), says that the Rwandan government offices “have all been very forward and progressive in their approach to tech.”

“One of the nice things about working with Rwanda is, as a small country, they tend to operate faster than a lot of the other countries that [we’re] dealing with,” Hetzler said. Rinaudo added: “The U.S. has one of the most complex airspaces in the world. I think where [drone delivery] will start is in environments where the need is incredibly high, and the airspace is incredibly empty.”

However, the Kagame government, with whom Zipline has inked a deal to do business (signing such deals is how the company plans to make money), isn’t all that forward-thinking when it comes to non-tech issues.

Rwanda is ranked 161st out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Western governments, which have been staunch supporters of Kagame, have chastised him for now seeking a third term in spite of constitutional limits. In 2013, Pulitzer-winning reporter Jeffrey Gettleman laid out how Rwanda’s impressive economic gains have come at the cost of basic freedoms; dissidents have reportedly been targeted for assassination, and Kagame himself has physically beaten subordinates for supposed disloyalty.

When asked about any concerns about working with a government like Rwanda’s and a leader like Kagame, Hetzler praised them as effective and transparent partners in progress.

“Our experience with Rwanda has been very positive. If you look at the World Bank ranking for countries that are easiest to do business in, Rwanda is the top country on the African continent,” Hetzler said.

Earlier, at one point during the demonstration, Rinaudo ticked off a number of facts about the state of poverty and health care in Rwanda, his way of building up the size of the market problem that he intends for Zipline address. Naturally, someone asked how many lives he thinks Zipline could save.

“It’ll save hundreds of lives in the first couple years, if everything goes right,” he replied.

Rinaudo declined to share too many specifics about the business, like how much money it’s making or what its timeline is for global expansion. However, at one point during the Periscope broadcast, the camera held on a sign that said “Llueva truene o relampaguee,” a Spanish saying that the Zipline team vaguely suggested meant a planned move into Latin America.

Translated literally, the phrase means “rain, storm or lightning” — comparable to the unofficial “neither snow, nor rain” USPS motto.

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