Andreas Raptopoulos has a deep, warm voice and kind eyes that crinkle at the corners when he smiles. The co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Matternet, a Palo Alto, CA-based startup that’s working on “creating the next paradigm for transportation using a network of unmanned aerial vehicles,” Raptopoulos believes that in our era of software innovation, businesspeople and humanitarian organizations should not lose sight of the importance of delivering physical goods and services, too.
The concept behind Matternet is to create a physical network of small flying drones that could transport packages, relay-race style, between ground stations. The idea is to form a system in which various goods, such as medicine or emergency supplies, can be brought to places without immediate access to these needs — say, because of a lack of roads or other infrastructure. At the ground stations, the drones’ batteries could be replenished. The name of the company reflects an intentionally obvious metaphor to the Internet — only this web would be one that would connect physical objects very, very quickly.
The idea was hatched in 2011 at Singularity University, a 10-week entrepreneurial program that is hosted each summer at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley. Since then, Matternet has been gaining a lot of attention in recent months; for example, this fall, Raptopoulus was named a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, and in the new December 1-7 edition of The Economist, Matternet is featured (and its competitor, Aria) in the magazine’s Technology Quarterly.
I recently sat down with Raptopoulos not long after he presented an overview of Matternet onstage at the annual PopTech conference, a big-think gathering in Camden, Maine of scientists, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, artists, international civic leaders, and technologists who collectively seek to improve the world. I asked him not only about recent trial runs of medication deliveries that Matternet conducted in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but also about the value of creating a company extremely quickly, the role of design in the world of do-good drones, and his views on emerging-market innovation.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.
SmartPlanet: What’s the benefit of working on a disruptive business idea in an extremely condensed amount of time, as you and your colleagues did at Singularity University?
Andreas Raptopoulos: Imagine a ball on one side of a little hill, and you push it uphill, but once you reach the top, the ball gains momentum, speed. When not moving uphill, the ball has lots of potential energy within it. That’s a little like this type of experience.
Now imagine people gathering with amazing goodwill and the desire to change the world. And they’re willing to devote 10 weeks of time to create a world-changing project, because they really want to do so. By 5 weeks in, you can start seeing what’s possible from new technologies. In an inspiring environment, things happen really fast. Magic can happen.
SP: So are you saying that the sense of urgency, as in Singularity University or on a smaller scale, via hackathons, is a very efficient way of prompting innovation?
AR: Yes, the scale of time can change. Something interesting happens when you compress time. It feels like it expands. Plus, somehow, no matter how much time you have to develop an idea, any idea, it seems as if 80% is accomplished toward the end.
SP: This year, you’ve done trials of medicine delivery in Haiti and also in the Domincan Republic. Can you share a little what you experienced, in terms of the recipients’ reactions?
AR: I went to Haiti for the first time for the Matternet trial. Being there, in Port au Prince, and seeing kids see the delivery coming — their reaction was just amazing, just touching. There was much excitement.
We had normal anxieties, though: will we be able to do this, will our technology fail, will we be safe? And it will be a different story to accomplish links [between the Matternet drone stations]. We have a lot of work to do.
Now on the business side, regarding the Dominican Republic, it’s a country that is growing fast. There are lots of very bright business people and government officials there. They are very interested to do this. They want to join in on this paradigm. They want to create efficiencies that the developed world doesn’t have. It could be an amazing success story to show the capability to do this.
There is an amazing appetite to create the future in the Dominican Republic. We started working with a cybernetic park that’s interested in creating cutting edge technology, and they helped us with components for the trial. We want them to get involved, and see how we can develop a pilot there.
SP: In conversations about emerging-market innovation and the context of so-called “reverse innovation” or “trickle up innovation,” the focus is usually on adapting products from the developing world for the developed world. But could some of the innovation strategy be transposed, say, from areas that are resource-challenged, to the U.S.? Or is emerging-market style experimentation specific to areas with infrastructure problems?
AR: That’s an issue. For example, Matternet is located in Silicon Valley. We have the benefit of being able to talk to very smart people who created what we know as the Internet today. I thought about Clayton Christensen’s disruptive tech framework when developing Matternet: it’s necessary to find outlier applications that are the extreme cases, where current technology doesn’t work as well. Sure, we could use Matternet in San Francisco. But there are already very reliable ways to transport things there. But in Haiti, no. There is leapfrog potential there — we need to do much less to have a transformational outcome in Haiti.
But we made it key to our thinking to create developed-world services along with those for the developing world. Because the capability for easy transport exists in San Francisco, we have to push ourselves more there! So we need to think of niches.
SP: Can you give an example?
AR: Online retail. Fast shipping from Amazon only allows for a package to arrive the next day at the soonest. It relies on humans. We only work 8 hours a day. But we could be bridging the gap between orders and fast delivery. I dont’ mean going from 24 hour time frame to 2 hour time frame, really, but instead creating an experiential change, a quality change. Another could be helping to deliver cold storage of blood samples quickly.
SP: Now I’m wondering, do you feel like you can experiment more in the developing world, or in the developed world?
AR: If a need is so urgent, people and authorities are willing to take calculated risks, as in Haiti. But in the U.S., no. In the developed world, though, doing anything is easier because of resources. What really informed us early on is an analogy to mobile. If you believe you have a new paradigm, it can be a new paradigm everywhere. It’s up to you to figure out the strategy to do so. You might as well be thinking about everywhere from the beginning, if you want a technology to be everywhere someday.
SP: Now let’s talk about the role of design in creating a “new paradigm.” The Matternet drones look attractive; I would think that they would need to look a certain way to build trust as it flies in with life-saving supplies.
AR: Design has a huge importance. This is a perfect example of a new machine in the world, flying above the heads of people, and it has to inspire trust. First, we had to make it safe. There are also certain functional requirements for which we used design thinking to make it so. We designed the ground station to make sure that this could not be misused. Still, anyone has to able to use it — health workers, for instance — without a lot of training, if it needs to be used urgently. Also, the public appearance of the machine is key, it needs to be inspiring.
Right now, we’re designing and developing autonomous landing. We’re also working on the design of the experience and the design of the vehicle in terms of aesthetics. We’re working on fast iteration. We have a designer on our team. Design is close to our thinking.
SP: Are you working with disaster relief organizations in the U.S. and other developed-world nations as well?
AR: We’ve had some discussions with international organizations, but not yet in the United States. As a first response system in a natural disaster, Matternet could work. To transport whatever is critical — mobile phones, first aid kits — in the first hours of disasters, could make sense.
SP: Mobile phone innovation has been a popular area for social innovation as well as commercial innovation lately. But do you think there’s also a need to not lose sight of the physical world today, while mobile services and software design are on every investor’s, entrepreneur’s, and corporation’s agenda?
AR: I believe the next big wave of innovation will be new hardware. Yes, living and working in Silicon Valley, I hear investors say that the gestation time of hardware is longer, cost is higher, versus access, say, to a billion people fast with online services.
But there’s a tremendous opportunity with hardware. I personally think it’s worth it to take on the harder challenges. I’ve come across more people in Silicon Valley that want to make an investment to make a difference. Yet it’s not easy to compete with Instagram-types of success stories. There is an interesting wave building around matter, manipulating matter, though. And we have the right name for it, too! (Laughs.)
Image: Thatcher Cook for PopTech/Flickr