Don’t Use Tech to Replace Employees, Use It to Empower Them

When we started Moment Ventures, we set off to find companies and entrepreneurs building something we call the Infrastructure of Everything, which is the multiple decade (at least!) trend of connecting digital infrastructure to physical environments. We’re seeing new categories of machines being created to serve new market opportunities, as well as applications where people play a key role in the enabling infrastructure. We’ve found ourselves working with some amazing entrepreneurs doing some incredible things in markets ranging from education to food service to hospitality.

Robot Vroom Service

I remember the first time we went to visit the Cupertino Aloft Hotel to get a firsthand look at Relay, the room service robot made by Savioke, a company we were looking to make an investment in (we subsequently did). Relay (branded as BOTLR by the Aloft) gets dispatched by the front desk employee to deliver things to room guests: snacks, drinks, bathroom items, power cords,

Savioke’s Hospitality Robot: BOTLR at the Cupertino Aloft Hotel

whatever. We spent the afternoon with the Aloft hotel manager, who allowed us to trail Relay as it made its deliveries to guests. Relay autonomously navigates its way across the hotel floor, summons the elevator through a wireless connection, and seamlessly weaves its way around carts, people and corners until reaching its destination at the guest room front door. After calling the guest on the phone, Relay senses when the door opens so that it can unlock the hatch to allow the guest to retrieve the requested items. After a quick interaction with the guest via the tablet display, Relay thanks the guest, does a quick jig, and then turns around to retrace its way back to the front desk where it plugs itself into the charger to wait for its next task. It all takes about 4 to 5 minutes, including time for a few selfies.

Make Technology Your Digital Co-Worker

What struck me that day was the positive way in which Relay interacted with not only guests, but also with the hotel staff. Hotel maids and staffers went about their daily work activities, usually flashing a quick smile when Relay whizzed by on a delivery task. And the hotel manager told us this: before Relay, there was no one person on his team whose job was to deliver things from the front desk to guest rooms, so when requests come in, the front desker or another staffer was asked to make the delivery, which was especially difficult during busy or late night hours, and at times could take 30 to 45 minutes to get a toothbrush or power cord delivered. Relay became an integrated team member, working alongside employees, making deliveries 10 times faster and in an entertaining manner. And with Relay in action, the employees freed themselves up to accomplish other important tasks, and in fact were even empowered to use Relay proactively as a guest satisfaction tool by delivering surprising little amenities designed to brighten a guest’s day or evening. As a result, we were told that hotels that employed Relay robots usually saw a significant boost in their Trip Advisor ratings.

We came away with the conviction that in the hospitality industry, customer service works best when people and technology work in concert with each other. Workers found a way to creatively use Relay to improve guest satisfaction, which became a win-win proposition using cutting edge technology. And we’re excited to see that Relay has since made its way into hotels around the world, having made over 100,000 deliveries thus far, as well as being deployed in new environments that include hospitals, warehouse floors and apartment buildings, among other things.

Technology Needs People

This week I had the opportunity to catch up with two of our People-Based Platform companies: Copia and Call9.

Copia is a distribution platform for surplus food

Copia strives to end hunger by connecting enterprises and food service venues (caterers, stadiums, hospitals etc.) that have a surplus of food with local non-profits via an app that enables food heroes (drivers) to pick up and deliver the food. In the words of founder/CEO Komal Ahmad: “Hunger exists not because of a lack of food, but a lack of a distribution system.” The app has redistributed more than 500,000 meals made up from surplus food at venues that include Stanford Hospital, Cisco Systems, the San Francisco 49ers stadium, UC Berkeley and Whole Foods, benefitting groups such as Project WeHOPE, who as a result receive hundreds of pounds of amazing food every day via the Copia app and a food hero. It’s pretty cool to see a company putting technology to this kind of use, and now they’re beginning to scale the business across the country.

Call9 is an IT based health services platform designed to eliminate false alarm 911 calls at nursing homes. The service re-architects the “plumbing” between nursing homes and ER doctors using technology, so that patients experiencing an emergency situation could see a doctor via their interactive telemedicine platform within minutes as opposed to hours. Call9 serves a number of nursing homes in New York, and recently raised a new round to scale its business.

Call9: Emergency Telemedicine Platform for Nursing Homes

The Tech Part is the Easy Part

Both Copia and Call9 have developed apps to make the experience a push button one for its users, but the complexity lies in the nuances of connecting the technology to address real world situations. Each team has put in place mechanisms to ensure that people on both sides of the platform are able to work reliably and accurately because the technology connects them in ways that were unachievable in the past.

At Copia, food service teams ensure the surplus food is packaged and stored properly so that drivers can pick it up efficiently and quickly. The app provides drivers with specific instructions on where to park, find and stow the food, how to transport it and where to make the delivery. As a side note, Copia provides a full data set to the business donor for tax refund purposes.

Call9 places a fully trained critical care specialist technician and a rack of medical equipment in every nursing home facility that they serve, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The specialist is responsible for interacting with nursing

Call9 specialists work at bedside in nursing homes and communicate with ER docs via telemedicine platform

home residents and the ER doctors on the virtual platform, while performing tests (EKG, ultrasound, etc.) during emergency situations so that the doctor is able to make a careful judgment of the patient’s condition. You could say that the technician is really the key conduit to make this platform effective.

Using Tech and People to Solve Some Really Big Problems

In both of these cases, it’s the people in the platform that really make the system work. Copia’s drivers are entrusted to make careful and efficient delivery to needy recipients, while Call9’s on-site technicians become trusted and beloved resources in the nursing home, and they are seen as the face of the service. Once in place, this combined “tech+ people” infrastructure can then be replicated as each company begins to scale the business, as well as lead to all sorts of potential future business opportunities.

When technology and people work together to form an integrated experience, customers benefit from the efficiency of IT coupled with the necessary personal touch of people working with them. This is by no means an easy thing to pull off (if it were, there would be lots of companies doing this), but think about what it is that they’re doing: they’re using IT to cure hunger and eliminate 911 false alarms. Pretty awesome way to use tech and people.

And we see new startups forming every day with similar ambition to tackle a massive industry or world problem using IT. Entrepreneurs typically come from the industry they aim to overhaul, and they fully understand the nuances that they need to address in order to create a valuable, efficient, trusted service. Startups without the domain experience often miss the point completely.

The past tech boom was all about using IT to connect disparate groups of people. The next boom that we’re betting on is all about people connecting disparate pieces of IT, working in concert with the technology to solve big problems. And we couldn’t be more excited about it. The Infrastructure of Everything is still in its early days, and we look forward to seeing the kinds of problems people can solve. Bring it on!

Clint Chao is a General Partner at Moment Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund based in Palo Alto, CA. You can reach/follow him on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.