These are the new hot spots of innovation in the time of coronavirus

Report by Catherine Clifford

The Covid-19 pandemic has nearly instantly and very dramatically pivoted the priorities of some makers, start-up founders, entrepreneurs, researchers and doers — the innovators — to solving problems related to the pandemic and preparing for any in the future.

“Every [tech] entrepreneur that I know is spending time on the pandemic response,” CEO of global start-up accelerator The Founder Institute Adeo Ressi tells CNBC Make It. “Many innovations will result from this global focus.”  

That’s because a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity.

Adeo Ressi, CEO of the global start-up accelerator The Founder Institute, presenting at a Founder Institute showcase. Photo courtesy The Founder Institute

Alibaba, for instance, was transformed by the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in China. The company launched its first consumer market place just as people around the country were self-quarantining, so they turned to shopping online, setting the company on its path to becoming a $500 billion e-commerce giant. 

And there has already been an impressive amount of collaboration, says Sam Altman, the former president of top Silicon Valley start-up accelerator Y Combinator and current CEO of artificial intelligence research lab Open AI. 

“This will be a before moment and an after moment for the world,” Altman tells CNBC Make It, and “there’s incredible innovation coming,” he says.

Here’s a look at the areas of innovation which have become freshly important as the coronavirus pandemic takes center stage.

Innovation to fight the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous weak spots in how the government, businesses and citizens prepare for and respond to such events. But these weak spots are opportunities for entrepreneurs to innovate solutions, and many “are working to address the problems that we are facing right now, like a lack of testing and ventilators,” Ressi tells CNBC Make It.

There are many start-ups developing tools to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

That includes things like artificial intelligence spread modeling, symptom-tracking solutions, chatbots for diagnoses and people-tracking with nearby infection notification, Ressi says.

For exmaple, Y Combinator-backed start-up Inokyo, which builds and installs autonomous checking for retail stores, has used its technical knowledge to build a product, Act, specifically to help companies deploy contact-tracing technology to their workplaces and warehouses, Y-Combinator partner Jared Friedman tells CNBC Make It.  

“It uses cameras and computer vision technology to see visually which employees have been in proximity to each other,” Friedman tells CNBC Make It. “Inokyo originally developed this advanced technology for grocery shopping (similar to Amazon Go), and has rapidly adapted it to this new use case.”

And 500 Startups portfolio company OhmniLabs is facilitating virtual visits in the time of coronavirus with its “telepresence robot,” Christine Tsai, CEO and founding partner of the early-stage venture fund and seed accelerator, tells CNBC Make It.

The “telepresence robot,” made by Ohmni Labs. Photo courtesy Ohmni Labs

“They’re essentially high-tech mobile sticks fitted with high resolution cameras,” Tsai says. “Ohmni is now deploying these robots in hospitals to connect quarantined Covid-19 patients with their families, and donating them to care organizations to enable virtual visits with seniors who are isolated at home.”

Medical software company Qventus is helping hospitals manage patient flow and help hospitals streamline resources, Friedman tells CNBC Make It. The Y Combinator-backed start-up’s product specifically for the Covid-19 pandemic is being used by New York-Presbyterian hospital in New York City, Friedman says. (New York-Presbyterian is also an investor in Qventus, according to the public investor database Crunchbase.)

Innovation for quarantine life

Then there are start-ups working to address problems of the quarantined population trying to adapt. This space includes things like digital teleworking tools, home-schooling solutions, safe food delivery solutions, therapy and stress coping mechanisms, as well as symptom tracking innovation, Ressi tells CNBC Make It. 

One example of such a start-up is a Y-Combinator backed start-up called Outschool, which produces online video chat classes taught by independent teachers.

“Their demand has exploded as parents adjust to the widespread school closures across the US,” Friedman tells CNBC Make It. “To help families who need financial assistance to access these classes, they are giving away $1M worth of free classes.”

Techstars portfolio company Banjo Robinson, a London-based ed tech company which engages young children in an interactive penpal experience, has seen rapid growth in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

“They have experienced a five-fold increase in daily sales since schools closed. Parents are telling the Banjo team that juggling work with homeschooling is hard but Banjo activities have been a huge help in occupying their young children in educational ways,” Techstars founder and CEO David Brown tells CNBC Make It. 

Microgreen kit producer Hamama is helping people grow green produce at home, Tsai says.

“Given that communities are sheltering in place or quarantined at home, access to fresh produce is much harder to come by,” she tells CNBC Make It of the 500 Startups portfolio company. 

Then there’s artificial-intelligence stock trading platfrom, Pynk, a Founder Institute portfolio company, which Ressi says is doing well as investors digest the economic changes coronavirus has wrought.

“As a result of the market volatility, their returns have been 79% up over the last few weeks,” Ressi tells CNBC Make It.

Pynk co-founders Seth Ward and Rupert Barksfield on the stage of the 10th Wolves Summit, winning their startup pitch competition. Photo Credit: Wolves Summit

Innovation for life after the coronavirus

Then there are innovations accelerated by the pandemic that will live beyond its end.

For example, Tsai says remote care and telemedicine broadly will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic more attractive than they were prior.

So far it “has been held back by regulations and a general lack of awareness,” Tsai tells CNBC Make It. But it “has already begun to take more prominence and this behavior will likely persist past Covid-19 as healthcare providers see the benefits and efficiency in treating patients.”  

Ressi cites Second Medic, a telemedicine company for second opinions in India in which his accelerator owns a minority stake, as an example. “India just legalized telemedicine for primary care because of the Coronavirus,” Ressi tells CNBC Make It. “This businesses is exploding and plans to close a large pre-seed right any moment now.”

Innovation to reinvent hard-hit industries

 As the coronavirus pandemic has swept the country, it has changed consumer behavior drastically. And entrepreneurs in a hard-hit industries are being stressed.

“For start-ups working in negatively affected industries, this is an unprecedented time to innovate or face extinction,” Ressi tells CNBC Make It.

And according to Ressi, many start-ups have been able to adapt since they are “small and nimble,” he says.

For example, Smart Health Clubs (a Founder Institute portfolio company) is moving its business online in this time. 

“Physical exertion and the related heavy breathing is known to spread the virus widely,” Ressi tells CNBC Make It. So Smart Health Clubs “is pivoting to provide online engagement solutions to retain members through the pandemic. One options that they are examining is helping gyms sell idle equipment to members and create online courses for the equipment.”

And Gusto, a small-business payroll provider, “has been working around the clock to help small businesses get loans via the Paycheck Protection Program,” Friedman says of the Y-Combinator backed start-up. (On Feb. 22, Gusto was one of 11 companies added to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Technology Coalition, a public-private partnership which aims to help small businesses use technology more effectively to grow their businesses.)

The Gusto headquarters in San Francisco at Pier 70. Photo credit: Jenna Carando

Social care networking start-up Aunt Bertha is now helping people locate social services, Brown says of the Techstars portfolio company.

“There are so many people who need support and specific services and they are lost about where to look — at the same time, those offering these resources are overwhelmed by the exponential increase in need. Aunt Bertha is providing a critical connection between these two and they were ready at scale before the Covid-19 crisis hit,” says Brown. 

The bottom line is, says Ressi, change can be scary, but it can also be inspiring.

“If anything, I am encouraged by the fact that necessary changeis coming. I am excited about her prospects of new entrants to disrupt,” he says.

This article was first published on CNBC Make It and is republished with its permission.

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