Kiwibot has come a long way from building a bootstrapped robot out a grocery basket and spare parts. The company is working with food industry giant Sysco and expects to deploy 500 delivery robots on college campuses across the country in 2022.
Cofounders Sergio Pachon and Felipe Chavez Cortes started in the food business in Colombia, where they founded a grocery delivery service similar to Instacart. That company failed, but they got the idea that robot delivery might be viable. In Colombia, they built a robot from spare parts that was able to navigate across a room.
They quickly realized that the United States would be a better place to test and develop robot delivery. So in 2016, they relocated to Berkley, Calif. One of the first things they noticed was the cost of delivery in the United States. In Colombia, a lot of people use delivery, but the cost kept many people from utilizing delivery in the United States.
“In Latin America, we have a lot of deliveries from the stores, but when we went to Berkeley, we saw that you asked for a burrito for one dollar and you have to pay almost the same amount for the delivery fee,” Pachon said. “So we saw an opportunity to create something that could be more efficient, because we saw that in Berkeley or in California, deliveries were like a luxury.”
In 2017, the founders created another prototype and began testing. They wanted to see people’s reactions to the robots and whether they would be willing to receive deliveries from the vehicles. Kiwibots are small, only a foot tall, similar to the size of a remote-control car.
The first tests were positive, so the founders began looking for investors. They pitched multiple funders and eventually were able to get funded through a group of venture capital companies and individual investors.
“Our dream has always been to create a global company,” Pachon said. “In 2016, we went to Berkeley without knowing anyone. We had no contacts. We went there just to see about the environment. We went there, and we found that the community was really amazing. Like all people wanted to help you, all people. It was kind of like an environment where you can create a company. So we found that there were a lot of investors. There was a lot of money in the market, so we started to connect with them.”
With investor money, the company looked at ways to continue testing robot delivery and eventually landed a deal that deployed the machines at the University of Denver. The effort was done in conjunction with Sodexo, which runs dining services on the campus. The initial fleet was 25 robots, but more were planned.
Universities, Pachon said, are the perfect environment for small delivery robots. They can maneuver on the sidewalks and are less likely to run into obstacles. Plus, college students are more likely to be responsive to new technology.
“I think in the universities, this is a controlled environment,” Pachon said. “The students are very accepting of things, but we did have some problems at first. It was like, people don’t know how to use the robots.”
Sodexo embraces robots
Students at the University of Denver eventually learned how to use the robots, and that led to another test at New Mexico State University. Soon, robots were deployed at half a dozen college campuses around the country. Sodexo saw the robots as a real opportunity. Delivery was not something the food company normally provided, but students valued the ability to get food delivered.
“The advantages are great,” said Drew Nannis, Sodexo spokesperson. “They are fast, bring food accurately and anywhere (think a bench in the quad, not just a dorm room). They are safe, they keep costs low and they’re a great asset for our campuses. Often, they represent another way for the campus to show its supporting its students, and it’s on the cutting edge.”
In 2022, Sodexo was so excited about the positive results from robot tests that it decided to go all in on robot delivery. The company was part of a $14 million funding round for Kiwibot and signed up to have 1,200 robots delivered to 50 college campuses.
“We know that after quality, students are driven by convenience and choice, and (autonomous vehicles) give us a chance to deliver on that for our clients,” Nannis said.
To accommodate the work, Kiwibot recently moved its headquarters to Miami from Colombia. The robots are manufactured in Colombia and shipped to Miami, where they are deployed across the country. Pachon said the schedule is hectic, but he is confident Kiwibot will be able to manufacture and deploy the 1,200 robots by the end of the year.
“We have an amazing relationship with Sodexo,” Pachon said. “We made the relationship through the work. We’ve been really able to learn and grow over time.”
Besides the work on college campuses, Kiwibot is also providing data to cities. The robots require a similar environment to operating a wheelchair when maneuvering in the city. The robots detect holes in the pavement or the lack of a ramp access cut in the sidewalk. The robots record this information, and the data is provided to cities. With that data, cities can better make accessibility and other improvements.
The work is partially being funded through a grant from the James L. Knight Foundation.
The company also has a pilot project in Dubai. Kiwibot has partnered with online ordering platform Careem, and the project will test last-mile robot delivery in a dense, urban environment. Pachon also sees smaller delivery robots working in hotels, shopping malls and amusement parks. He thinks there are plenty of controlled environments where the robots could do the delivery in an economical and effective way.
He also knows other companies are testing and deploying small autonomous robots.
“I think there will be more and more and more companies entering in the next few years,” Pachon said. “So right now it’s about growing and growing. That’s our goal. We want to scale as fast as we can. But that is the challenge, because we have all the manufacturing and all the operations.”
He sees robots as a part of a larger trend toward autonomous delivery. That means drones, autonomous vehicles and smaller delivery robots like Kiwibot will be used. Together, these technologies can fulfill a role that is not currently being met in delivery. They can provide delivery quickly at an inexpensive price.
“I think in the future, we will have robotics, we will have drones, and it will be amazing how transportation is going,” Pachon said. “Everything is going to be automation for people. I think that the Uber and all these companies are working hard to make the automation. That’s going to be amazing.”
Nannis said Sodexo is pleased with the robot project on college campuses. Food service managers at the colleges like the robots, and the students really enjoy the convenience.
“So far, so good; that’s why we’re expanding,” Nannis said. “Students love the convenience, and the robots are more than just easy to use – they’re also cute, branded, rolling symbols of their school.”