We have communities that live sometimes in a state of stagnation where it seems that we cannot shift where they are in the cycle of poverty. Any attempt to do that without connecting them to the global economy will not succeed. How could we expect people to pull themselves by the bootstraps, or produce something that someone else will want to buy when they cannot get those goods to local and regional markets?”
Spencer Horne ’08 from South Africa is an award-winning entrepreneur and founder of Cloudline, a company designed to use drone technology to transport essential goods like foods and medicines to unreached populations. Combining knowledge from his Mechanical Engineering degree from Harvard University and experience as a Business Analyst with McKinsey & Company, Spencer’s passion for technology is being aligned to address a huge gap in critical infrastructure in Africa.
Spencer was born in Cape Town during South Africa’s transition from Apartheid. Growing up with a keen sense of curiosity about the world, Spencer quickly developed an interest in machines and technology, particularly being inspired by the big engine room scenes in the movie, Titanic. In his deep fascination about the scale of the machinery on display, he decided to one day become an inventor.
It was later on while studying at the renowned Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology that he heard about a new institution – African Leadership Academy – and applied. As one of the inaugural students, Spencer arrived at ALA with boundless enthusiasm, discovering the variety of cultures represented in the student body, engaging in creative conversations and exploring every avenue for technological exploration.
Exploring Technology at ALA
Spencer believed that nothing could have prepared him for his arrival at African Leadership Academy. He loved the non-traditional format of teaching which he encountered at the institution, the constructive debates with his peers on varying subjects, and the immense support from teachers. With a group of classmates, he built a model aeroplane and flew it around the campus, thus previewing his future career as an entrepreneur in the drone space. He went on to establish the Aviation Club at ALA and served as Treasurer in the inaugural Student Government. Noticing his passion for technology and his academic abilities, he was encouraged by ALA’s university guidance counselors to apply to Harvard University, where he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
From Harvard to McKinsey
While at Harvard University, Spencer worked with ALA’s Careers team to access transformational internships at General Electric, BioTherm Energy and Mobius Motors in offices across Africa. He then joined McKinsey & Company as a Business Analyst in the Johannesburg office. During this time, he worked on numerous projects, often doing market research in rural areas and noticing the absolute lack of infrastructure and connectivity. Noticing the structural differences between urban and rural areas and acknowledging the difficulty in addressing poverty in such conditions, he concluded that any attempt to change this narrative would be unsuccessful without connecting these rural areas to global markets. With this in mind and a long-held passion for aviation, Spencer’s vision of creating a company to transport essential goods like foods and medicines and connect remote communities to local and regional markets was birthed. The company was named Cloudline.
Spencer founded Cloudline in 2017, working out of the LaunchPad, an innovation space at Stellenbosch University, with a mission to address the needs of more than 1 billion people who currently live without direct access to roads and/or runways. Cloudline is an autonomous airships logistic company that has grabbed the attention of the world for its innovative approach to delivering essential goods to remote locations using unmanned lighter-than-air vehicles. The balloon-like drones have a long range capacity of approximately 200kms. The application of this technology is highly versatile and it can be used to transport necessary supplies in both developed and developing countries, but Spencer’s focus is on providing for the ‘bottom billion’.
Cloudline aims to reach people who are excluded from the global supply chain, due to a lack of infrastructure, impassable terrain or low population density. Although airships are slower than other modes of transport and their size makes them vulnerable to wind, they are reputed as the “marathoners” of the drone world. Spencer’s methodical and research-intensive approach to developing the company is beginning to pay off. In March 2020, Cloudline was named as the top recipient of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Award in South Africa, for its solution to “advance and uplift society, especially addressing the needs of the ‘bottom billion’.”
Vision for the Future
Although Cloudline is still in the early stages of its journey, Spencer’s vision is compelling and palpable. He is convinced that remote economies cannot develop in isolation, recognizing that the majority of the individuals accounted for in the ‘bottom billion’ live on the continent of Africa his desire is to play a role in changing their story. He is confident of getting Cloudline‘s solution to the market and continuing to work to eradicate extreme poverty in Africa and beyond.