The Drone Will See You Now. Who's Backing a Novel Approach to Last Mile Health Delivery?

A range of funders have long been working on the problem of last mile health delivery. After all, conquering various other obstacles around medicine and healthcare doesn't count for much if the benefits can't be delivered to the people who need them, including those living well off the beaten path. 

For the global health and development community, no ideas are off the table for tackling the last mile challenge, as we've previously reported. Not even drones.

In Rwanda, the company Zipline with some help from the UPS Foundation and Gavi, has been delivering lifesaving medical supplies to remote regions of the country using drones. 

Beginning in October of this year, the California-based company and its partners have been delivering blood and blood products to more than 20 transfusing locations across Rwanda. The overall goal is to improve maternal mortality and decrease the number of women dying due to postpartum hemorrhaging—the number one killer of pregnant women worldwide.

Zipline is now set to expand its operations in a major way, having just received $25 million Series B funding from a handful of investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, and Jerry Yang. This latest investment comes on the heels of the $25 million Zipline raised in (announced in August 2016) and the $19 million it raised, announced earlier this fall—making the total take $69 million in just over three months.

Marc Andreessen’s VC firm Andreessen Horowitz is a heavy investor in tech—no big surprise for the cofounder of Netscape. Andreesen Horowitz holds a stake in Facebook, Twitter, and Airbnb. Its growing stake in Zipline isn’t a major leap in investment ethos here. Especially given its penchant for backing mobile tech, enterprise software, and outfits exploring the intersection of technology and life sciences.

While Andreesen Horowitz doesn’t necessarily have a long history of investing in companies working at the intersection of healthcare and technology, its co-investor, Sequoia Capital does. That firm, founded by Donald Valentine, is a strong supporter of healthcare ventures in both modern technology and brick and mortar undertakings.

For example, the firm has invested in Cloud Nine, a chain of maternity and neonatal hospitals in India as well as Natera, describes as “a leader in non-invasive prenatal test provider,” which is looking to expand its array of “tests and services based on proprietary bioinformatic algorithms.”

Finally, Paul Allen also participated in Zipline’s $19 million funding round in October, and you can see why its work might interest him. Allen’s involvement in the global health landscape is fairly well known and includes a pledge of at least $100 million to combat Ebola and prepare for the next global disease epidemic; big donations to support Alzheimer’s research; and significant backing to stop the spread of the Zika Virus.

Related: Inside Paul Allen’s $100 Million Ebola Give and Where His Philanthropy is Headed

Regardless of the impetus that lead to their big investments, these tech giants are onto something big with the potential to change the landscape of not only healthcare delivery, but humanitarian aid delivery as well, which is of keen interest to the UPS Foundation and Gavi. It’s worth mentioning that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation played a significant role in helping to launch Gavi’s operations with a pledge of $750 million over five years made back in 1999.

Millennium Development Goal 8 (MDG 8) calls for pharmaceutical companies to work in cooperation with the global health and development communities and country governments to not only make essential drugs affordable for poor countries, but sustainable as well. According to the UN Development Group, “Access is defined as having medicines continuously available and affordable at public or private health facilities.” The UNDG adds that access is also defined as having medicines available and affordable at “outlets that are within one hour’s walk from the homes of the population.”

Let’s think about that for a second. The average person in decent health can cover about three miles in one hour moving at an average pace. For someone who is older, very young, or infirm that pace becomes slower and that walk can take much longer.

And this isn’t just a poor country problem. People living in rural America also lack easy access to basic medical care and supplies, which is something that Zipline hopes to address in the coming months with appropriate regulatory approvals, of course. Until those approvals come across the wire, the company is looking to possibly expanding to Indonesia and Vietnam in the near future.