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Meet the robots working to disinfect your office

Fetch Robotics and CEO Melonee Wise are deploying new disinfection robots to make the reopening amid the pandemic safer.

Meet the robots working to disinfect your office

Fetch Robotics' new SmartGuardUV robot.

Photo: Courtesy of Fetch Robotics

As companies aim to reopen amid the pandemic, keeping workers safe is every businesses' primary concern. Fetch Robotics, a 6-year-old logistics automation company, thinks that robots may be part of the solution.

On Thursday, Fetch Robotics announced a new autonomous robot designed to disinfect high-trafficked spaces within offices and warehouses. The company said its SmartGuardUV robot can be run remotely to eliminate up to 99.9% of viruses and bacteria with broad-spectrum ultraviolet light disinfection. The announcement comes soon after Fetch's unveiling of Breezy One, a different kind of robot tackling cleaning spaces with a disinfectant fog.

In an interview with Protocol, co-founder and CEO Melonee Wise detailed how Fetch Robotics developed both disinfection robots, the strategies they're employing to keep people working safely and the company's plans to build on the technology long after the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fetch Robotics has primarily been focused on robots for warehouses to date. As the pandemic was sweeping the nation, was there a moment where you realized you needed to shift strategy?

I think it just accelerated some of our longer-term strategy. Once the shelter-in-place happened, we saw this big branching between our customers: customers that were considered essential and customers that weren't. The last couple of months, we picked up pet care and electronics [companies] for people who were buying laptops and caring for their pets. But on the flip side of that, we also saw a downturn for certain industries like automotive.

We had always had a plan of making [our] system more of a platform for people to build new solutions on, and we had had some partners doing that already. I think we started seeing more companies approaching us for disinfection solutions. And one of things that became very apparent was that these are the needs for this type of situation. So we actually made a small hardware change to our robot to support the six or seven partners that we're now working with on disinfection solutions for different verticals and different types of disinfection.

I would say that we're adding more to the software sooner than we thought we were going to. We thought that this longer-term platform play was probably a year or two out. We had been starting to get some initial interest from people wanting to put their own custom things on robots for hotels, health care, etc., but there wasn't this huge ramping demand. With COVID, suddenly everyone wanted to attach something with a disinfection capability or to [use robots] enable social distancing.

We're seeing a lot of different changes in the types of customers right now, and we're reacting to that as fast as we can. We are seeing more medical companies, more ecommerce, more electronics and pet care. And some of the bigger, more traditional industrial or manufacturing partners are slowing down because of the challenges with the economy right now.

How did you approach creating and deploying a disinfection robot? Was the technology something already in the works before the pandemic?

All of our base technology works very well with supporting what people want to do with autonomous disinfection. There are a couple of big advantages to our technology just to start: One of the reasons that we have not been as impacted by COVID is we've had the ability since COVID started to deploy robots remotely. So we can pack them up and ship them to a customer. They'll take it out of a box and connect it to Wi-Fi, and it just works because all of our stuff is in the cloud. That is one of the stronger bases for why a lot of partners are coming to us because it's really easy. In this environment, no one wants you to come onsite.

So partners started coming to us, and they had either some fogging mechanism or some UV light that they thought would work really well. And then we help them figure out how to attach it to the robot. But a lot of the tech that we had for autonomously driving around people or driving into small areas already existed. We have a full toolset that we've made because we were very focused on making it fast to deploy before any of this happened. In the manufacturing and logistics industries, typically a time to deploy automation technology was three to nine months, and we took it down to less than three days.

The big changes that we made to the product were to support higher-power [accessories] because UV lights are very power hungry, and we had to change the hardware. But overall that's about all we had to do. We also added some finer controls, so [partners] could turn the power on and off, but most of the software is the same, whether it's a disinfection application or a manufacturing or logistics application.

We have a large customer base already, so as we bring on these partners, some of them are complementary. We have the fogging partner that fogs with a disinfection chemical, and then we also have a UV partner that has a flashing Xenon light. And those two are very complementary because you can fog at night and then continuously disinfect conference rooms throughout the day.

How did you go about making a hardware change in the middle of everything that was happening to supply chains globally?

The hardware change was relatively well-contained, and we had good partners that could do that. A lot of it was custom, so we had control over the whole supply chain. It wasn't like we had to go out and order something from China. It's made in the United States, so we just fabricated it here. That's one of the nice things about our product: A large portion comes from the United States, so it's easy to support and make.

I think one of the more challenging things is we were pretty selective in the partners that we've been working with. And one of the lights that is used for the UV robot is pretty hard to source because the state of New York bought thousands of them. But they've been able to secure that supply chain as well. It's definitely been interesting pulling it all together and just trying to help our partners scale as fast as possible because there's huge demand. I don't see this going away anytime soon.

The SmartGuardUV robot on its lunch break.Photo: Courtesy of Fetch Robotics

One of your robots is being used in Albuquerque's airport. Did an unconventional space like an airport — compared to the office structures you typically operate in — prove challenging?

Build With Robots [a robotics integration company] is the partner we worked with, and then they've been deploying with [the] Albuquerque airport and a couple other locations. It's going really well. The janitorial staff at Albuquerque is very pleased with the robot. They don't have to spend a lot of time around those dangerous chemicals. The robot's friendly, and it's easy to use for them.

One of the nice things about the airport and a lot of public spaces is they're all actually governed by the American disability act. So they all are relatively controlled in terms of some of the features like the ground levelness, because there are other people that need access with limited capabilities. You can, in many ways, think of a robot as a device with limited capabilities. So we try to use the ADA requirements of a building as somewhat of a basis for the capabilities of the robot. And so it makes it easier for us to go into those spaces because of it. So the biggest challenges that we have are actually older buildings that don't conform to ADA requirements.

How are you thinking about the staying power of these disinfection robots after the pandemic?

Airports have always been a massive hot spot for transmission of infectious diseases. And if you look at the chemical they use for fogging with a Breezy One, it can eliminate everything from common colds and flus to anthrax. In large commercial spaces, I think it will have staying power. I personally would love it, and I'm excited for it because I travel so much, and I swear every second time I get on an airplane, I get sick.

I think that you're going to see staying power in shared workspaces as well. In coworking spaces, I think that people are going to demand these kinds of features that bring them extra safety and health benefits. I don't know about individual businesses and whether they're going to have the same motivation, but I think that in any shared space or public space, there's just going to be a public health concern and a push to offer these assurances.

No robotics or automation interview is complete without a question about the impacts on jobs — was that a consideration as you began building these solutions?

It's not really a factor, but if anything, these robots will definitely create more jobs because they'll put people back to work because they can be in the buildings again. If you look at what we've been doing since COVID started, we've actually been enabling businesses to stay open and keep people at work. So if anything, we've been the basis for keeping the economy going. We have customers who basically had to shift from one shift to three shifts in a day just to be able to support social distancing, and the robots have really supported that. People don't have to go from one person to another. The robot can do that because we're flexible.

[In many cases] the robots' routes through buildings were totally changed to support that. If you imagine how a fulfillment center typically looks, you have people packed in right next to each other, but you can't do that right now. If you look at how it's done in a lot of facilities, they just have a conveyor, but during COVID without robots, you can't just pick up the conveyor and move it and have all the people separated. With robots, you can.

I think that flexibility shows, in general, that robots don't take jobs. If you look at our entire customer base over the last six years, as far as we know, no one has laid anyone off to deploy a robot. Typically they've hired more people. Most of the time our robots have been brought in to support business growth, not to save money.

With all that's going on, how does the rest of your year, and next year look for Fetch?

Some companies are now coming out of their hibernation, so a lot of our second-half plans are related to customers who know that they now need to automate and have to accelerate plans drastically. We're working with a lot of customers right now on plans for deploying larger systems to support the new normal.

We're very focused on helping with disinfection solutions, bringing them to market, and then leveraging the relationships that we have with our investors or getting into airports or other large commercial spaces or shared working spaces with those disinfection solutions. Some of it is getting into these other verticals.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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