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Ahti Heinla, co-founder of Starship Technologies, on how robots will transform the delivery space


At Tech City News, we’re always keen to shine a light on those who make up the UK’s thriving technology community.

This week, we spoke with Ahti Heinla, co-founder and CEO of Starship Technologies, a robotics company.

Heinla talked about the future of the robotics industry and his definition of success. 

Should robots be given employment rights?

Tech vertical: Robotics
Funding: €16.5m
Staff count: 90
Location: London
Founded: 2014

Q: Where did the idea for Starship Technologies come from?

While still at Skype, Janus Friis and I were brainstorming the changes we could make in the world using new robotic technology. We realised we could make the world smaller with robots by creating a low-cost and sustainable delivery option for the things people need most in everyday life: groceries, takeaway food, packages, etc. Once we realised this was possible to do with autonomous robots, we set out to create them.

The initial design of the robot was inspired by a prototype that I had previously submitted to NASA for a competition to build a bot that could collect samples on the surface of Mars. Two years later, we have created a fleet of robots and launched an international partner program to make delivery cheaper, more environmentally sustainable and convenient.

Q: What advice would you give entrepreneurs?

Being passionate and committed, focused on ongoing R&D efforts. Our extensive testing, in multiple global locations has helped us to not only see how the technology itself performs in different environments, but importantly, allows us to gauge social perception and interaction with the robot, easing it into society and educating people on the benefits of using Starship sidewalk robots for short distance delivery.

Q: What are your predictions for the robotics industry?

Autonomous deliveries are technologically feasible and not a long-term dream. In five to 10 years, delivery robots will be an integral part of a modern city and its transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, efficiency and convenience of delivery is a much bigger problem for business and consumers than we thought.

The mere prospect of a delivery revolution has energized hundreds of businesses who seek this disruptive technology. It’s not only about cost, it’s about availability of workforce, congestion in cities, scalability and flexibility. Lack of efficient and cost effective delivery is the main bottleneck in growth of e-commerce, especially local commerce, and robotic technologies are the only current viable solution.

With on-demand capabilities and ease of use, Starship’s robots will change consumer behaviour. Customers who may have once been hesitant to order online or have products shipped to them will be more likely to do so, knowing that they can use their phone to summon the package from a Starship robot at a convenient time to them. This will also impact the returns industry.

By offering convenient, instant returns at the consumer’s door – it opens up new opportunities for consumers. For example, a user could purchase three pairs of shoes online, try the shoes on at door; if one doesn’t fit, they can put the shoes back into the robot for instantaneous return shipping. The future implications of ground robot delivery are massive, and we’re only at the very beginning.

Q: How do you define success and why?

Success can take many different forms – it’s when you see a challenge and you find a way to address it.

Last mile delivery is the largest bottleneck in the delivery industry, especially local deliveries such as groceries and food. When you factor in the need for a van to locate the delivery address, navigate residential streets, park, walk to the property – only to find the recipient isn’t home, and the entire process has to begin all over again – other forms of delivery are largely inefficient. By removing this process, we will provide a new lease of life to retailers, brands and logistics firms who can increase supply chain efficiencies and reduce costs.

Furthermore, with road traffic and congestion increasing globally from the boom in e-commerce, we make the last mile delivery of goods more environmentally friendly. The robots produce zero emissions, drastically cutting down overall traffic CO2 emissions, especially in local neighbourhoods.

Q: How easy is it to score partnerships with larger companies in the space?

We have recently announced two US pilot programs with DoorDash and Postmates, which follows the launch of partnerships in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Estonia with Just Eat, Hermes Parcel Delivery, Media Markt, Swiss Post and Wolt. It’s a laborious process that requires ongoing R&D and ongoing stakeholder engagement to ensure all parties are educated around the potential and the benefits of the technology.

Q: What can we expect from Starship Technologies in the next 12 months?

Starship Technologies will be continuing its research and development of semi-autonomous robots whilst expanding our pilot programs into new markets. Robots will become a more common sight on the sidewalk as the company grows around the world.

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