May 1, 2020 - Economy

Coronavirus helps robot delivery startup Refraction AI gain traction

A delivery robot.

Refraction AI's REV-1 robot. Photo: Refraction AI

Refraction AI, a robot delivery startup in Ann Arbor, Mich., was having trouble gaining traction before the pandemic — and now, it's racing to capitalize on our stay-at-home mentality.

Why it matters: In the midst of the pain and suffering from a crisis, there's often room for innovation by forward-looking entrepreneurs with good timing.

Founders Matt Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, both professors at the University of Michigan, developed an autonomous electric cargo bike they believed would be cheaper and easier to deploy than other delivery robots. They said...

  • The three-wheeled REV-1 can travel in bike lanes or on the street, thus filling a sweet spot between small sidewalk robots like Starship and Nuro's compact delivery vans.
  • It’s categorized as an e-bike, so it has fewer regulatory hurdles.
  • Teleoperators monitor the robots remotely to take over when needed at busy intersections.
  • The company raised $2.5 million and started a six-month pilot with eight robots delivering prepared meals to some 500 customers in Ann Arbor.
  • Still, convincing people to get their dinner from a robot was a challenge.

Then the coronavirus arrived. Stay-at-home orders created a surge in grocery delivery, and Refraction AI quickly pivoted.

  • "I said, this is our moment. Our dream was to get to national scale, but we didn't know what the path looked like until this virus hit," Johnson-Roberson told me.
  • "It took a pandemic to crystallize for people why robot delivery could be huge."

The company is quadrupling output, with help from Michigan's Roush Industries, and expects to have 25 robots running in Ann Arbor within the next two months.

  • "We had a six-month plan ... that turned into a two-week plan."

What's next: The company is beginning a free touchless grocery delivery service in Ann Arbor, using its own employees as pickers to load the vehicles at the store.

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