- Food delivery robotics company Starship Technologies plans to expand its services to 100 U.S. college campuses over the next two years, the startup announced Tuesday.
- Starship robots currently operate at George Mason University, Northern Arizona University and as of Tuesday, the University of Pittsburgh. The service will also roll out to Purdue University on Sept. 9.
- Starship secured $40 million in its latest funding round, bringing its total funds up to $85 million, according to the release.
With food delivery via robot still in its nascent stages, Starship is effectively carving out a space for itself in the college student market, where consumers are digital natives, tend to prioritize convenience and typically don't have access to full kitchens.
Its George Mason partnership, which launched back in January, lets students use their meal plans to pay for snacks that are delivered by its 25-robot fleet. Starship partnered with food services company Sodexo on the pilot, and offers delivery for a $1.99 fee from campus restaurants like Dunkin Donuts and Blaze Pizza. The company linked up with British grocer Co-op last year to deliver orders in Milton Keynes, just north of London.
In targeting campuses, Starship joins retailers like Publix and Target that have built college locations recently. The startup also sidesteps the greater resistance to and regulation of food delivery robots that exists in several major metropolitan areas, as private university grounds involve less regulation than public city sidewalks, and tend to be well maintained. San Francisco, for example, imposed a strict permit-only policy, where so far only Postmates is licensed to test food delivery robots. Even with a permit, each Postmates robot requires a human courier within 30 feet, and the company can only operate three at any one time.
Starship robots at George Mason are equipped with locks, GPS systems and cameras, and competitor Kiwi, which currently operates its bots at UC Berkeley, enabled theirs with tracking devices and a human monitoring their routes.
The AI technology is still in its pilot stages, as engineers consider how the technology can be scaled and made safe to pedestrians, while critics remain skeptical of robots' feasibility in busy urban areas. San Francisco Supervisor Norman Lee argued in 2017 when the city implemented their ban, "the business model is basically get as many robots out there to do deliveries and somebody in some office will monitor all these robots. So at that point you're inviting potential collisions with people."
In contrast to autonomous delivery vehicles being tested by Walmart and Kroger, Starship's fleet is small and operates at low speeds on sidewalks.
Others say the robots offer social benefits for the elderly, disabled people and low-income individuals living in food deserts. And recent data from Starship's pilot at George Mason University saw another positive outcome: an extra 1,500 breakfast orders had been delivered in the two months since the fleet was introduced, indicating that the robots could help address the number of U.S. college students who skip breakfast due to not having the time.
Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer said in the announcement yesterday that the latest investment helps the company toward its goal of reaching over 1 million students, which aligns with estimations from MarketsandMarkets that the robot delivery market will triple in size by 2024.