Teleportation is just a Zipline away

February 2023

Key Points

  • Zipline founder Keller Rinaudo Cliffton explains how the firm’s drones are saving lives all over Africa
  • Autonomous drones powered by rechargeable batteries make deliveries cheaper, faster and zero emission
  • The company is rolling out a logistics system for one of the world’s biggest retailers, Walmart

© Getty Images Europe

All investment strategies have the potential for profit and loss, capital is at risk.

Because Baillie Gifford invests for the long term, we forge deep relationships with founders and CEOs, which help form our views of their companies and shape our world views. Here, we share insights from Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, chief executive of Zipline.

Zipline’s founder Keller Rinaudo Cliffton is used to people not believing him. When he founded the drone delivery service in 2014, investors and experts in global health alike told him he was foolish. They didn't think his vision of ‘instant logistics’ – building the world’s first automated, on-demand logistics system to serve all humans equally – was achievable.

Cliffton recounts:

The technology wasn’t going to work. Even though the technology worked, we would never get regulatory approval. Even if we could get regulatory approval, there was no chance that a country would pay us money to do this.

But his small team, with their backgrounds in robotics, software and automation, thought differently. Ignoring the experts, they focused on working directly with governments prepared to give Zipline the time and space to make it happen.

“Rwanda,” says Cliffton, “by virtue of being a small country, very technology forward, innovative, willing to try new things and make decisions quickly”, was an excellent place to start.

His tenacity and perseverance are already paying off and saving lives. And healthcare systems and large corporations across the globe are sitting up and taking notice.

Photograph of Zipline International Inc. Chief Executive Officer Keller Rinaudo Cliffton © Bloomberg/Getty Images

Solving the problems too big for the world’s largest businesses

If it’s said that good things come to those who wait, the number of delivery vehicles on our streets suggests that fewer people believe it. We want items to appear as soon as we have ordered them.

That distracts from the fact that only the wealthiest people on earth – the golden billion as they’re sometimes known – have access to logistics. And that’s costing lives.

Cliffton highlights the, “five-and-a-half million kids under the age of five who lose their lives every year due to lack of access to basic medicinal products”.

Those families, and the healthcare systems providing them, are unlikely to care about the software, control algorithms, ground equipment or regulatory approvals behind Zipline’s automated drone technology.

What’s important is the millions of vaccine doses, infusions, blood transfusions, cancer products and insulin being delivered by autonomous delivery drones within minutes of a nurse or doctor requesting them.

At the outset, Rwanda proved a perfect “partner” and testing ground for the company. Cliffton remembers offering to deliver all medical products to every primary care facility and hospital in the country to its Minister of Health. He says, “She looked at me and said, just do blood.”

And for the first nine months, that’s precisely what Zipline did. Except it was only for one hospital.

Cliffton humbly admits it was “a total logistics nightmare” and “way harder than they were expecting”. The company had to factor in the different storage requirements and shelf lives of blood cells, platelets and plasma and replicate this across the blood types.

Today, with over 35 million commercial autonomous miles under its belt, Zipline delivers medical supplies and 67 per cent of the blood to Rwanda’s 450 primary care facilities and hospitals. It supplies 7,000 hospitals and health facilities worldwide.


Zipline’s secret weapon

From an outsider’s perspective, you might assume Zipline’s competitive advantage lies in its small, automated electric aircraft, weighing about 22 kilograms, that can fly 300 kilometres on a single battery charge and deliver products from the sky onto the ground with the precision of two parking spaces.

© Getty Images Europe

Cliffton disagrees. He suggests that being “scrappy, frugal problem solvers” is in the company’s DNA and aircraft technology only represents 15 per cent of the complexity they have had to solve in real-time to build a cutting-edge logistics system.

While the company’s product vision is to approximate teleportation, Cliffton confirms, “a huge part of our mission is just that we think that everybody deserves universal access to healthcare”:

I think a lot of people are sick of this paradigm of technology companies being evil and destroying democracy. Many people want to be part of something they can tell their grandkids they created from scratch [to solve these kinds of problems]. And so, I think our mission has been our secret weapon in competing against much bigger companies.

Developing the infrastructure has become a source of national pride in many countries Zipline has launched in. It has always hired entirely local teams, whom Cliffton points out, “are doing what some of the richest technology companies on Earth have tried to do and failed.”   

It’s clear from what Cliffton says that fashioning a new kind of global logistics network that is automated, zero emission and 10 times faster than any other delivery form does not phase him. Zipline’s partnership with Walmart in the US demonstrates that once you offer this service for health and wellness products, customers expect everything else to be delivered within the same timeframe (minutes rather than hours) and to-the-door convenience.

He says, “we went from delivering a small number of SKUs [stock-keeping units, the codes retailers use for tracking inventory in their stores and warehouses] to 3,000 SKUs to 12,000 SKUs. Now we deliver 27,000 SKUs of the 30,000 total SKUs in the store we’re attached to.”

This is made possible by Zipline’s first distribution centre in Arkansas. Cliffton explains, “that distribution centre basically enables teleportation of essentially any product in that store to any home within 50 miles.” Should the company succeed in replicating this across the Walmart franchise, it gives you an indication of how large the growth opportunity could be.

From the starting point of delivering blood in Rwanda to dropping off rotisserie chickens and birthday cakes in the US, drone delivery has the potential to take a significant share of the global logistics network. If the company succeeds, it will tremendously impact humanity, facilitating universal access to healthcare products and everything else.

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