Keenan Wyrobek is the co-founder of Zipline, a California company designing, building, and deploying drones that deliver life-saving medical supplies and blood to the most remote and difficult to access places on Earth. He has a background in helping develop several tech products and patents in robotics, and is now leading product and engineering for Zipline. I had the opportunity to meet Keenan at TEDMED 2017 where he took the stage to share Zipline’s progress in East Africa and the vision they have for the future of their company. Following up on his talk, I asked a few questions to learn more about Zipline and the future of medical drones.
Tom Fowler, Medgadget: When did you first get interested in working with drones?
Keenan: The plan to use drones to overcome infrastructure challenges for medical deliveries came during a visit to the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania in 2014. We met a graduate student there 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 to do. Unfortunately, there was no way for the government to fulfill these requests. Staring at this list of names and the medical supplies they needed to survive made the scale of the problem clear. We’ve designed Zipline to solve this problem. We know who needs medicine, when and where. And now, we can get them that medicine as quickly as possible.
Medgadget: When and where was the first successful delivery of blood product by Zipline that was used on a patient? How many units of blood have been delivered so far?
Keenan: Our first blood delivery was to Rwanda’s Kabyayi district hospital in October of 2016. When I spoke at TEDMED in November 2017 we had made over 2,000 flights to deliver more than 4,000 units of blood. As of today we have made over4,000 deliveries delivering over 7,400 units of blood.
Medgadget: What was the biggest design hurdle you had to overcome to get where you are today?
Keenan: We discovered that building and designing the technology is the easy part. The hard part is integrating with the national health system. We have an incredible partner in the government of Rwanda and are where we are today because of their focus, dedication and commitment to excellence in health care.
Medgadget: Have there been regulatory challenges in establishing drone flying operations in different countries and airspaces?
Keenan: We work hand in hand with the federal government, the national health system and civil and military aviation authorities. It takes a tremendous amount of work and partnership and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results.
Medgadget: Do you foresee Zipline expanding to serve rural areas in the United States and Canada?
Keenan: Our goal is to build an instant delivery service for the world so that every doctor everywhere has what they need to do their job. And doctors in remote areas of the United States and Canada have told us time and time again how powerful on-demand access to medical supplies would be for their patients. We are passionate about getting it done.
Medgadget: If I gave you $1 billion to develop a product of any kind, what would you create?
Keenan: I’d say we created the product, it’s Zipline. I’d use that money to expand our global reach and help save more lives. The world is big and I would use the money to enable us to scale faster into every hard to reach corner of the world.