Health and Healthcare Systems

What COVID-19 taught 10 startups about pivoting, problem solving and tackling the unknown

Image: Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Tooba Durraze
Growth Strategies Lead, Strategic Intelligence, Global Leadership Fellow, World Economic Forum LLC
Olivia Zeydler
Lead, Strategic Integration, C4IR Energy and Materials, World Economic Forum
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  • The COVID-19 crisis forced startups to rethink everything from their management to their business models.
  • Pivoting taught these 10 startups key lessons on leveraging capabilities, moving quickly, and maximizing teams.

COVID has transformed how businesses run and how leaders lead. The World Economic Forum’s Global Innovators Community, a group of innovative start-ups and scale-ups, explained recently how they used their technologies and expertise to fight the pandemic – and what they learned in the process that they’ll apply to future crises.


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1. Move fast and fix things
MachineMetrics, an industrial IoT platform for machines, doubled down on remote technology monitoring during COVID-19 to help manufacturers monitor their factory productivity and supply chains from afar. Additionally, the company developed a program to provide free access to its technology to any manufacturer involved in the production of COVID-19-related manufacturing, such as ventilator components or testing and protective equipment or any COVID-19 related manufacturing.

Pivoting meant developing educational programs and delivery mechanisms for its new programs in about one week. The experience helped the company lean on strengths such agility and organizational trust, which were essential to both the company and its manufacturing customers’ success. Through this experience MachineMetrics learned how to balance the needs of the company with the needs of the industry its serves. When these needs are in alignment, you can move quickly to achieve remarkable things, said Graham Immerman, the Vice President of Marketing.

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2. Learn first, act later
KONUX, a technology company that uses artificial intelligence to support predictive maintenance of industrial plants, didn’t pretend to know what to do next or how the company should react. In the moment of great flux, Founder and CEO Andreas Kunze asked himself: “What is really the core of what we do? And in a scenario where our market collapsed, what assumptions would I still not challenge?” Such questions helped him focus on his core beliefs and the company’s strengths and values.

Said Kunze, in times of great change, “The role of the CEO needs to transform to Chief Learning Officer.” He said, “We need to learn about the market, customer, product, and people impact as fast and as much as we can. That is where innovation truly happens.”

3. Find new problems to solve
Orbs, a public blockchain stack that helps businesses and governments develop blockchain applications, saw an opportunity to adapt its technology to the new challenges that COVID introduced to daily lives. A key challenge? How countries could safely open up their borders to both residents and visitors, and how individuals could prove authenticity of their health condition while maximizing privacy. “From the very first days of the COVID outbreak, we set our minds to figuring out how blockchain can be the technological foundation for current challenges,” said Netta Korin, co-founder at Orbs.

As a result, the company designed a blockchain-based health passport in which test results can be signed cryptographically. This allows holders to prove when, where and by whom they were tested for COVID or potentially any other diseases. Based on this data, countries can determine the terms under which an individual may or may not enter. Furthermore, it allows authentication of results wherever travellers go in order to track and monitor people’s paths in case of an outbreak, all the while minimizing privacy infringement.

This experience taught Orbs that the real challenge is identifying the opportunity within a crisis. Thanks to these efforts, the company is currently in discussion with a government looking to adopt Orbs’ solution as part of the country’s public health platform.

4. Know your “why”
Avellino shifted its business model during the crisis, pivoting from genetic data and diagnostics, to filling a gap in the testing market for the COVID-19 crisis. The change came about after just 3 weeks of brainstorming sessions. The company credits its agility to the team’s alignment on purpose and priorities, said Eric Bernabei, the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer.

There was "never a debate" about whether or not Avellino should make the pivot, explained Bernabei. The only discussion was about how to do it successfully, identifying potential risks and collaborating to ensure that it could identify trigger points for decisions and actions.

5. Find ways to foster community
The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges with no established roadmaps or best practices for guidance. In that space, many companies saw the power and support networks that could provide. For instance, agtech company Mooofarm realized the value of community among its members. The company supports marginalized dairy farmers in underserved markets around the world and the pandemic underscored how the farmers that used its platform shared and learned from each other regarding cattle health and nutrition management, government schemes, subsidies and cattle trading. Progressive farmers shared dos and don'ts with each other and responded to queries about dairy farm management. To support this effort, the company is currently in the process of developing an online community to help this community better interact and strengthen its existing bonds.

6. Rethink business as usual
Early in the crisis, 3D printing company 3YOURMIND Inc., saw a way its technology could help generate PPE and respirator connectors. In only a few days, it leveraged its software technology to create a virtual factory of more than 40 professional 3D Printing suppliers and a digital inventory of more than 60 validated designs. This made it possible to deliver thousands of pieces of printed equipment, on-demand, with the highest degree of IP and data security.

The move has helped the company future-proof its business, as it saw the need for digitizing stocks and relocating production for key products and components. “Over the next 10 years, more than 8% of stock units will be virtualized and produced with on-demand 3D printing,” said Aleksander Ciszek, Chief Executive Officer at 3YOURMIND Inc. As a result, the company is helping firms to collect and assess parts data and create their own digital warehouses. “This is a tremendous task ahead of us,” said Ciszek.

7. Strengthen relationships
Thanks to lockdowns and the need to communicate virtually, financial services and blockchain company Diginex went remote. It switched from running in-person consultations to a new approach that accommodated remote technology implementation. This meant standardizing its product offering to enable rapid scale-up of its technology solutions.

This approach allowed Diginex to focus on its strength, the technology infrastructure, while engaging local partners to handle effective implementations. Said Miles Pelham, Diginex Chairman, the company has always valued its long-term partnerships, but this period has shown the importance of those relationships in helping the company adapt and scale.

8. Get creative
The pandemic provided a special opportunity to contribute for Livinguard, a maker of innovative face masks and other PPE. Still, when work went remote, it needed to scale up while ensuring staff could work safely and transport goods after COVID halted air travel and other transport.

While most staff worked from home, the company found a locality not in full lockdown where it could run some key operations and where flights were still available. “We had to really switch gears and stretch our limbs,” said Livinguard’s EVP of Business Development Jonathan Pantanowitz.

9. Leverage your capabilities
AI-powered insights company Contextere found the current pandemic created a transformational opportunity to advance productivity initiatives it couldn’t have imagined before the pandemic. The company, one that uses machine learning and industrial data to help employees execute their jobs more efficiently, saw the opportunity to apply its technology to its own company. This approach helped the team eliminate rework at Contextere and even identify new opportunities to contribute to the COVID-19 fight. Subsequent COVID-19 AI research the company conducted for its own staff led to the deployment of AI to support frontline workers, eliminating productivity barriers to overburdened workers during a critical time.

In times of great change, the role of the CEO needs to transform to Chief Learning Officer.

10. Embrace new challenges and new opportunities
COVID exposed existing weaknesses and vulnerabilities – and made them more complex. Venture debt, for instance has become increasingly constrained due to regulatory restriction and conventional lending practices by financiers that demand physical collateral. For partner banks and VCs, “It is an even tougher environment, then it used to be, in relation to financing,” said Mohamed Wefati, the Founder and CEO of MIZA, a fintech company that helps support small and medium enterprises in the MENA region. “Access to finance is an issue for small enterprises.”

However, there are multiple initiatives launched by central banks and banks across the MENA region, for example, to stimulate credit for SMEs. MIZA’s main learning was that with the inevitable digital adoption sparked by COVID, small enterprises stand to benefit from increased access to finance due to their increased digital footprint. This new paradigm opens up increased opportunities for driving financial inclusion across the MENA region.

COVID-19 World Economic Forum, Strategic Intelligence Platform
The World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence Platform helps put the COVID-19 into context. Image: World Economic Forum, Strategic Intelligence Platform

Last year, the World Economic Forum launched Strategic Intelligence, its flagship digital product to help individuals and organizations see the big picture on the global issues facing the world. It provides a tremendous resource for exploring the interconnections between over 250 different topics and keeping up to date on everything that could potentially be an opportunity or a risk to you or your organization. Strategic Intelligence enables organizations, like the Global Innovators, to keep abreast of risks, opportunities and trends, enabling them to take more of a data-driven approach to managing their business.

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