EXECUTIVE INTERVIEW: Two Companies, One Woman, Leading the Way with Drone Technology and AI

November 26, 2019

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An ACT News Executive Interview with Paola Santana, founder and CEO, Social Glass, on how advanced technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and drone delivery, are helping connect people in new ways and inspiring future methods of transportation.

Social Glass is a software ecosystem powering high-performing governments. The company builds purposeful, transformative technology for 21st century governments, using AI to digitize, streamline and scale good processes and decision-making. Helping government fleets become more efficient and carbon-neutral is an area of focus for Social Glass as governments are often some of the largest fleets, with decisions that impact the entire public.

Before founding Social Glass, Paola worked to change the face of transportation in another way – through drone technology. She previously co-founded Matternet, a Silicon Valley drone logistics network that became the world’s first drone delivery platform authorized for permanent operations over a populated city in 2017. The company continues to enable organizations around the world to build and operate drone logistics networks for transporting goods on demand, through the air, at a fraction of the time, cost and energy of any other transportation method used today.

Paola will be speaking about AI technologies for fleet operations at a complimentary Sustainable Fleet Webinar hosted by the 100 Best Fleets and the North Carolina Technology Center. The webinar takes place on Wednesday, December 11, at 2pm ET/11am PT. Sign up to hear firsthand how AI is playing a role in the future of transportation.

ACT News caught up with Paola to learn more about how advanced technologies, such as AI and drones, can help cities and rural areas alike tackle today’s largest transportation issues.

ACT News: The first company you founded, Matternet, ushered in a new paradigm in transportation using drone technology for last mile delivery, with a focus on the health care sector. How is this technology transformative, and what environmental advantages does it offer?

Paola Santana: Drone delivery will dramatically reduce the cost of moving products, especially in places that are hard to reach. This not only applies to rural places without infrastructure. It can also be a place with a lot of infrastructure, and a lot of people.  For example, in a developing country that has not been well designed and built, it may be difficult to do business because roads may not exist. And then in big modern cities, if it’s 5pm, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re not going to get anywhere quickly with traffic.

Drone delivery will dramatically reduce the cost of moving products, especially in places that are hard to reach.

The question we asked when we started Matternet was how can we rethink how we connect people? What type of infrastructure can we build? For delivery of goods, what if we eliminate the need for a road, a vehicle and a driver? How can we dramatically cut the cost of infrastructure? The vision back in 2011 was for this to be a gamechanger for two different sides of the problem, for large cities as well as for areas that have poor infrastructure.

There was so much that had to be thought through. How would we ensure safe operations for an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), as well as the people and property on the ground. Eight years later we are the leading drone delivery company, with partnerships with UPS and Mercedes-Benz, who are using our technology commercially. We are the first drone delivery company approved by the FAA to operate as a drone airline, the first one in the world.

ACT News: The second company you founded, Social Glass, is using AI technology and applying it to government purchasing processes. From another perspective, how do you see AI technology advancing transportation and fleet operations?

Paola Santana: Governments are the biggest decision makers, the biggest purchasers, and operate the largest fleets. Procurement is how government defines what they want to take place in a city, or a country, using public funds. The procurement muscle should be able to move quickly and learn where the best places are to spend their funds. Governments are the biggest decision makers—and largest investors— in the world.

Governments are the biggest decision makers, the biggest purchasers, and operate the largest fleets.

I am always working between transportation, government, and technology. Transportation and government are both types of infrastructure. With Matternet it was physical infrastructure with drones. With Social Glass I’m working on digital infrastructure for government procurement.

We started by collaborating with public fleet divisions in California. We see how they are currently making purchases and helping optimize the way they spend their budgets. These fleets are asking how to identify the lowest carbon vehicles for their fleets, and do it faster, for a fraction of the cost. We are trying to identify everything, from the parts they buy, to their suppliers, and how to reduce their emissions.

ACT News: What inspired you to found Social Glass?

Paola Santana: Government has always been my passion. I’m trying to understand how I can transform and take government to the next level. Having been a government officer and government servant myself, my inspiration for Social Glass was based on knowing we have the human capital in government all around the world, to create change. We need to empower this workforce with the right tools. By taking government to the next level, government can do what it’s meant to do, which is serve the people.

ACT News: What can you share with us about your team’s mission at Social Glass?

Paola Santana: Our mission is to observe government operations, digitize them, streamline, and scale them. We do this using technology, especially artificial intelligence. AI allows us to identify ways to optimize operations in a manner that humans can’t.

Social Glass is an ecosystem of products aggregating data and making data visible and simple to use. We are starting with procurement, as procurement is one of the most powerful ways that governments make decisions. How we spend our money determines where we are going as a society.

Our mission is to observe government operations, digitize them, streamline, and scale them.

ACT News: As a female entrepreneur, what advice do you have for women looking to become effective leaders in the transportation and technology sectors?

Paola Santana: I think that women bring a different leadership approach. Women or men, we’re all human. Women’s thinking and decision-making capabilities are very complimentary to more masculine leadership capabilities. With Social Glass we are creating global products for government. To create products that will resonate with everyone, we have a global team. As a leader, my main job is to set the vision and keep it crystal clear. I surround myself with people who know more than I do on topics I need to understand. Women and diversity in leadership roles creates better products and better global solutions.

ACT News: How can state and national transportation policy be streamlined to promote best practices in the transportation industry?

Paola Santana: Policy and policy making would benefit from having a more flexible and dynamic framework. The goal of policy is to standardize and set the vision for the goals we want to see. Timing is of the essence and you cannot implement policy just for the sake of it. How beneficial is a policy when it’s not implemented on time? Great policy should be faster, streamlined, and actionable. One of the ways this can happen in government is to implement test phases of policymaking before full implementation with the public.

Women and diversity in leadership roles creates better products and better global solutions.

Take for example when Matternet started implementing drone delivery in Switzerland. This had never been done in the world, so at first, we didn’t understand what regulations needed to be put place for the entire industry—how high, far, or long should the drones be flown? So, the way we started learning was by experimenting in a controlled, low-risk environment.

ACT News: What did you learn the hard way?

Paola Santana: That it is OK to unlearn things. I learned in my first startup, which dealt with hardware, there was very little room for failure. I had to have a lot of answers before I did something. Now that I’m in software, I can move quickly, and even demonstrate things before they exist. I realized I was getting in my own way by using lessons from my first startup, that don’t apply to what I’m doing now. I’ve had to leave behind some of the different profiles I’ve created for myself over the years, in order to move forward.

ACT News: Do you have a favorite quote, motto, or personal mantra?

Paola Santana: I have a favorite quote from American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist, Buckminster Fuller. I always end my talks and my presentations with this quote. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”