The Innovators: Routific Finds its Way Around the Pandemic

February 1, 2021

This article was first published in BCBusiness by Nathan Caddell.

With its promise to optimize delivery of goods, the Vancouver software company's customer base more than doubled in the months after COVID-19 hit

When his business thrived thanks to COVID-19, Marc Kuo made sure he gave back as much as he gained.

Vancouver-based delivery optimizer Routific, which Kuo founded in 2015, started taking off in tandem with the pandemic, ballooning from about 500 clients globally in early March to more than 1,000 in September. So the company took on even more business, in the form of free service to some 450 nonprofits across North America, helping deliver meals, medicine, masks, school supplies and everything else.

Originally from the Netherlands, Kuo wrote his University of Rotterdam master’s thesis in economics on route optimization algorithms before meeting his now-wife, a Canadian expat, in China and moving to her home country. “At least in theory, I had built a prototype of an algorithm that would create routes 40-percent shorter than any human route planner designed,” recalls the Routific CEO, who based his research on the behaviour of honeybees.

“As a collective, honeybees are able to find the shortest path between flower pads,” Kuo explains. “At first, they’ll randomly fly a particular direction and then go onto some paths to flowers. They’ll come back to the hive and do a bit of a waggle dance to attract the attention of the other bees, to be like, Hey, look what I’ve found; I think I have a good route. More and more bees will follow that route, and while they do that, they’ll find side routes along that direction.”

Similarly, Routific’s algorithm directs CPU power the way bees spend their time flying around, constantly searching for the best route.

In developing his company, Kuo surveyed 11,250 small and medium-sized businesses, finding that 72 percent of them were still planning routes manually by hand, typically spending hours every morning using spreadsheets and Google Maps. “Not only was this a big waste of time, the routes that they were coming up with were simply not efficient,” he says. “The human mind is not designed to solve such a complicated mathematical puzzle.”

As the world came to rely on delivery even more than usual after the pandemic forced people into their homes, the demand for Routific’s software and the shortening of those routes grew. “If you have the super-small problem of 57 addresses and you want to find the optimum sequence, there are already quattuorvigintillion combinations—that’s a one with 75 zeros,” Kuo says, with a laugh.

Besides helping nonprofits, Routific has another goal for the common good: making a positive impact on the environment. By shortening routes, the 25-employee company has taken cars off the road. In one case, a FedEx customer in California was using 20 trucks before Routific shrank its fleet by five while allowing the same number of deliveries. “Every driver that switches from a manual route to using Routific is equal to planting 86 trees a year in terms of carbon emission reductions,” Kuo says. “In 2019 alone we quantified, across our entire customer base, that we’ve cut carbon emissions equivalent to planting 500,000 trees. Which is essentially Stanley Park in one year."