Sometime in December 2015, on a road trip from Lagos to Ibadan, I had an epiphany. In a market with both shortage and surplus, the way to solve the problem of limited access to blood and save thousands of people is to seamlessly connect blood banks to hospitals. By January 2016, LifeBank became a registered company, and by May 2016, we made our first delivery. Since then, we’ve been on call 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. We’ve grown from a small, scrappy startup whose premise impressed Mark Zuckerberg, to an undoubtedly impactful company recognized by some of the world’s leading authorities on innovation like Jack Ma. Now, we are thrilled to announce another milestone in our growth — we’ve taken to the skies! LifeBank has added drones to our existing mobility fleet of motorcycles and boats.
In 2017, the wife of one of our medical dispatch riders, Sophia (name changed) had a baby. It was an amazing addition to their little family and we were all so glad for them. A few hours later, the nurse on duty found out that Sophia had been bleeding for a few hours and was close to going into shock. Our Rider called and our system kicked into place. Blood was found in minutes and the rider’s teammate was on his way. Before we got to the hospital, Sophia had died. We were devastated because our daily job is to save lives and the fact that we didn’t have enough time to rescue Sophia never really left our psyche. We knew then that for some patients, 45 minutes is too long. To deliver these critical supplies to patients who only have 25 minutes, we will need to take to the skies.
A few months after Sophia’s death, I was invited to pitch at the Startup Night! Africa in Berlin. At this event, organized by Lionesses of Africa, I met with Tendai Pasipanodya of Endeva, Rey Buckman of Airbus BizLab, and Herve Kubwimana of Merck KGaA. The meeting went well and LifeBank was invited to join the Drones Doing Good Alliance (DDG). Our first mission? Explore in what ways and under what conditions it makes sense to use drones for the delivery of critical medical supplies in Africa. To fund this quest, we applied for and received a Business Innovation Facility Grant powered by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
Every hour, 10 African women die from Postpartum hemorrhage (PPH). Nine of these women could have been saved with quick blood transfusions. With about 60% of Africans living in rural areas, drones present an exciting opportunity to quickly reach the most vulnerable people living in remote corners with lifesaving medical supplies, and reduce maternal deaths from PPH. Drone technology also provides us with an opportunity to drop our already impressive average delivery time of 45mins even further. However, because the drone industry is still very young, there are significant costs associated with completing deliveries via drones. To recognize, understand and plan for the realities of these costs, LifeBank and DDG devised a proof of concept project that examines when it makes sense to use drones for deliveries, and how best to deploy this exciting innovation to provide maximum utility.
An important part of ensuring maximum utility for drone operations is drone selection. It was important to us that the drone selected provide value in both directions where after blood or medicine deliveries, the drone could pick up lab samples from the hospital and take them to labs. This return service means remote hospitals without sophisticated lab equipment can quickly diagnose their patients and decide on the next course of treatment. LifeBank and the Drones Doing Good Alliance selected a drone with heavy lift with a payload of 6kg. Our drone is a battery-powered hybrid fixed-wing and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) that combines the long-range capabilities of a fixed-wing aircraft with the precision landing of a copter. The former feature allows us to make deliveries to distances within a 30km range and back without battery change, and the latter feature means the costs of setting up drone operations are significantly reduced.
While we waited for the approval of our drone license from the relevant Nigerian authorities, we were connected to officials at the Ethiopia Government’s Information Network Security Agency (INSA). INSA is tasked with exploring new technologies and safeguarding Ethiopia against technological and cyber threats. Their enthusiasm for innovation, commitment to identifying how new technologies can be used for the greater good of the continent, and their decade-old experience developing both hardware and software drone technologies made them ideal partners. We signed an MOU with them in September 2019 and completed the proof of concept a few weeks later in October 2019. LifeBank and DDG could not have done this project without the logistical, regulatory and technical support INSA provided, and we look forward to working with them to establish a drone delivery network in Ethiopia.
Overall, we are most grateful to the rest of the DDG alliance for their partnership, expertise, relentless optimism and determination to overcome whatever hurdles were thrown our way. Merck provided the team with medical cold chain expertise, Airbus BizLab provided the alliance with aviation industry expertise and granted us use of the Airbus drone testing facility, Dr. Hans Peter-Thamm provided valuable support necessary for drone selection, operation planning, and execution, and Endeva kept us functioning as a cohesive unit by organizing our calls and workshops. We will like to especially thank the folks at UKAid for allowing us to take this risk and figure out a very knotty problem through their Business Innovation Facility. We are thankful!
With this new mobility solution added, LifeBank is the first African-led company to execute beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights for healthcare logistics. We are providing one more way of connecting blood supply to demand, and now, hospitals to labs. LifeBank is a step closer to being in every city, every town, and yes, every village!
Up next for us is to expand our drone network in Ethiopia, use the learnings from this proof of concept project to execute a full drone delivery pilot, and develop proprietary software that will enable us to determine, within minutes, what mobility solution to deploy for each circumstance. Just as we created a new career path for traditional dispatch riders and trained them to be medical dispatch riders, amongst the things we are excited about is the opportunity to spearhead the creation of new jobs in a burgeoning industry.
Our approach to drone deliveries will remain grounded in our central ethos of delivering maximum impact with limited resources. We are not a bike company, a boat company, or a drone company. LifeBank is in the business of saving lives, whatever it takes. We will reach everyone, anytime, everywhere, with the most efficient mobility tool. Drones will help us ensure no one is out of our reach.
If improving health outcomes with drone deliveries sounds like something you are interested in funding or facilitating, get in touch with us. The best is yet to come!
To learn more about the alliance, click here.