This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
While COVID-19 has been challenging for many businesses, the combination of consumer caution, desire for contactless service, and social distancing mandates has been highly beneficial for two Ann Arbor startups specializing in automated delivery robots.
Pre-pandemic, Refraction AI was already riding a wave of success that had been steadily building for a couple of years. The company was working with a handful of partner restaurants to provide food delivery services and looking forward to expanding its customer base to include grocery stores.
"When COVID hit, it was a dramatic change and we never expected to be moving so quickly," says Refraction AI co-founder Ram Vasudevan. "We had been hoping to move into the grocery delivery space, but COVID really accelerated that timeline for us."
That hope has become a reality. As of last month, Refraction AI's robots have been delivering groceries from The Produce Station directly to customers within a three-mile radius of the store.
That collaboration is just the beginning. Refraction AI is preparing to announce additional grocery store partnerships in the near future.
"It's been an exciting and very fast-moving time for us," Vasudevan says. "People love that we are contactless, so we have a lot of appeal and there's definitely growing interest."
Evidence of this lies in the numbers. Refraction has had three to four times more orders than it did prior to recent social distancing mandates. Since the pandemic began, the company has recognized a need to produce more robots in order to meet consumer demand. The company is expecting to expand its fleet from eight robots to 25 by September.
"When COVID happened, I was worried about our partners not being able to survive," Vasudevan says. "Some of my first thoughts were about how our business model could help them during a really difficult time."
The team at Bedestrian is also invested in helping people better manage the pandemic. Since 2018, the company has been focused on the health care sector, specifically delivering pharmaceuticals within a hospital setting.
When COVID-19 hit, the company was working with two major hospital systems. Essentially, Bedestrian's B1 driverless vehicles were delivering medicines within hospitals and/or between hospital buildings.
"Then suddenly there was the pandemic and the conversations that we were having with hospitals dramatically changed," says Bedestrian founder Shadi Mere. "Before, it was more about efficiency and how much money our robots could save them. Now there is a critical and urgent need."
Mere recalls that at one point, a chief medical officer told him that they wished Bedestrian had 10 or even 20 robots instead of its current fleet of three, due to their positive impact during the height of the pandemic.
"There was a real increased need for our robots because medical staff running medicines were not only risking exposure to COVID. They could become carriers," he says. "We were really taken by surprise by the sudden demand."
The clamor has spurred the company to accelerate its technology. Bedestrian's robots are now being outfitted with UV disinfecting pods. And, in what Mere calls "a very unique move," they will also eventually be totally insulated so their cooling systems don't release potentially infected air back into the environment.
"People are wising up to the fact that COVID is airborne, even momentarily, so we're working on making our robots' cooling systems enclosed," Mere explains. "Not many companies in the world can say that, so we are really emerging out of the pandemic much stronger and with a better product."
Bedestrian is expanding beyond the two hospital systems it was working with. There are plans to build an additional eight robots for one partner.
The company has also broadened its vision. Bedestrian is setting its sights on the Midwest region between Michigan and Illinois, targeting about 10 hospitals. Staff will also be branching out into elderly care centers in the near future.
"We're going to take all the lessons that COVID-19 taught us, apply it to our technology, and make as big an impact as we possibly can, for as many people as we possibly can," Mere says.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Bedestrian and Refraction AI.