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Outlier’s Path

Romotive to Zipline

This past week Zipline launched its Platform 2 to much fanfare, including press coverage and famous science video bloggers. Mark Rober covered Zipline because he dedicates one video yearly to “showcase how clever people are using engineering to change the world for the better.” The video was viewed a million times in less than 2 hours and over 9.4 million times in the last day. It is also the #2 trending video on YouTube.

It is important to note that Zipline was a pivot of a company called Romotive, founded by Keller and 2 of his childhood friends who were obsessed with robots. The year was 2011, and it was difficult from the start. David Tisch rejected Romotive from TechStars NYC, but helped the company enter TechStars Seattle. After receiving 2,000 Kickstarter orders, Romotive could only raise $1.5 million in seed funding after TechStars Seattle. With few resources, the team moved to Las Vegas to build.

Sequoia was alerted to Romotive around 2012. We spent time with Keller and his team and were consumed by the vision of creating a mobile robotics platform with the iPhone serving as the brains. When the product rolled off the production line, we got a fun iPhone-controlled robotic toy called Romo. It was an initially engaging product, but then many put Romo away and wouldn’t use it again. Keller and his team put their heads together to build more use cases and educational apps to make Romo more engaging. Their efforts improved engagement, but Keller and his team had greater ambitions than building a toy company.

In January 2014, the team shut down Romotive to explore a more impactful mission. With little cash runway, Romotive sold its inventory of Romo to raise cash. Keller liquidated his life savings which he invested in Tesla stock (after serendipitously meeting Elon Musk backstage at a TED conference) to fund the company, conducted a RIF, and hired a different team to pursue a completely different idea. Keller thought about the problem very simply. To succeed (or survive), he held to the principle of customers first, then the company, then his team, then himself.

By March 2014, Romotive pivoted to Zipline and began developing a medical drone delivery service, despite the objections of many who believed that drone delivery was already too crowded, we didn’t have the right team to build a drone delivery company, and the long timescale required to receive regulatory approval would crater the company. Simply put, Zipline would never fly.

While true that the FAA would be slow to approve drones to fly beyond the line of sight in the US, Zipline decided to focus its initial flights elsewhere. In 2016, Zipline signed a deal with Rwanda and began commercial operations delivering life-saving blood products from one distribution center. In 2018, Zipline’s service expanded in Rwanda to include smaller health centers in addition to hospitals, providing blood, vaccines, and other medical products. In 2020, Zipline could finally fly in the US when the FAA granted a Part 107 waiver to deliver medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical facilities in North Carolina. To date, Zipline has made over half a million commercial deliveries.

This past week’s announcement of Zipline’s future Platform 2 was possible because Keller and his team never gave up, kept questioning the scale of ambition, and focused on solving real customer needs. We’ve been fortunate to have a front-row seat to witness Zipline take flight in the last decade. With Platform 2, Zipline keeps raising its ambitions. Zipline is still far from a success, but we’re excited to see how Zipline will transform our lives in the next decade.