Birth of new ideas: Opportunities for startups in a time of crisis

Startups that understand the new definition of ‘normal’ will try to bring out the best in themselves by grabbing new opportunities and identifying new customers.

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India’s burgeoning startup ecosystem should remain vigilant for the birth of new ideas that will compel it to re-imagine business for the post-pandemic world.
By Ravi Narayan

Undoubtedly, it is a time to despair. But it is also a time to hope. Yes, the rapidly spreading Coronavirus pandemic has put immense strain on large businesses and startups alike. And yes, investors are on edge, valuations have come down and skilled workers are being laid off across industries. However, I still believe that we have reasons enough to remain hopeful—to see the silver lining in the form of unique opportunities that the crisis will soon throw open.

As we prepare to go back to a world which will be changed forever, the time is ripe to reset everything as we knew it. If ever there was a time where it is a level playing field for both celebrated startups and the more modest ones—it’s now. Startups that understand the new definition of ‘normal’ will try to bring out the best in themselves by grabbing new opportunities and identifying new customers.


Also, the pandemic that has gripped the planet will be over soon enough. Keeping this optimistic outlook in view, India’s burgeoning startup ecosystem should remain vigilant for the birth of new ideas that will compel it to re-imagine business for the post-pandemic world. In this article, I examine key pockets of opportunity that the Coronavirus human tragedy is opening across sectors.

Healthcare tech to lead the way
Patient care and public safety have come to the forefront ever since the fight to contain the lethal virus started. As of May 30, there are close to 6 million Coronavirus cases have been reported worldwide. Innovative HealthTech companies are on the cusp of a major transformation that will create virtual health solutions by leveraging AI (Artificial Intelligence), biomedical engineering, 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics, among other digital technologies to counter the Coronavirus.

U.S.-based HealthTech company Metabiota has deployed machine learning capabilities to present an early and accurate analysis of the geographical spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. Other technology-driven solutions to tackle the virus are also emerging, such as behavioural and biometric data from medical wearables that detect positive cases of Coronavirus.

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While startups are on an overdrive to mitigate or suppress the spread of the infection, Microsoft has also pulled out all stops to find innovative patient care solutions. The tech major has partnered with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) to deploy its AI-powered chatbot called Clara to assess symptoms and risk factors associated with the Coronavirus. The technology aims to track high-risk individuals and suggest a contingency plan to help them gain access to medical resources in a timely manner.

There are an estimated 4,800 HealthTech startups in India that are leveraging cutting-edge technologies to help the government fight the pandemic. Bengaluru-based startup Bione has developed a genetic test using predictive analysis tools to check every individual’s immunity against the virus. In the weeks ahead, more technological innovations will be seen in the HealthTech sector to identify Coronavirus patterns and enable healthcare professionals to effectively focus on patient care.

ACT (Action Covid-19 Team), a collaborative effort led by VCs and leading entrepreneurs, with the active support of State governments and other stakeholders, has backed several homegrown HealthTech startups to combat the pandemic. In particular, the State governments of Telangana, Karnataka and Punjab have initiated rapid action task forces to accelerate scalable solutions to fight the lethal virus.

For instance, with direct support from the Telangana government, ventilator manufacturers Ethereal Machines and Max Ventilators have been shortlisted to manufacture and deploy ventilators to the Army and COVID wards. Ethereal is creating moulds of ventilator splitters to help hospitals cope with the shortfall of the crucial life-support device.
Another HealthTech startup, MolBio, has developed an indigenous, portable and battery-operated RT-PCR machine to scale India’s testing capabilities, even in the remotest areas. Since MolBio is not only making testing kits but the PCR machines itself, they have pitched in to address the huge bottleneck in testing capacity.
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The massive shortage of PPE in the country has led HealthTech startup Karkhana.io to deploy 3D Printing, injection moulding, machining, fabrication, and design facility, to produce PPEs. This includes face shields, aerosol boxes and goggles. The startup also produces tools for manufacturing other PPEs (mask machines, gown machines), and ICU equipment valves, connectors and ventilator parts.

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Startups like Karkhana.io are deploying 3D Printing and design facility to produce PPEs.

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A new path for mobility
The novel Coronavirus has potentially altered the definition of a hyper-connected world. The global transportation system and urban centres will never be the same again. The crisis has been an eye-opener for the transportation ecosystem to adapt quickly to travel restrictions, social distancing and other measures to contain the spread of the virus at the local, national and international levels. With massive disruptions impacting commuters worldwide, it is time to pause and think creatively about enabling an agile and seamless mobility system.

The phase after Coronavirus abates will be pivotal as it will set the trends for the future of urban mobility. The strict lockdowns imposed by governments across the world has spurred mobility companies to take unique initiatives to create a safer world for everyone.

The CORE MaaS (COvid-19 REsilient Mobility as a Service) is a project developed by Iomob- a decentralized, open source mobility marketplace-- in partnership with Factual, a boutique consultancy that specialises in all things mobility. The initiative calls for ideas to develop an open SDK-based middleware platform that integrates available mobility service providers (MSPs), public transport, taxis, and other mobility services across multiple cities and regions within Continental Europe. The platform uses intermodal routing algorithms to allow users select available mobility options within a selected geography that optimises social distancing.

Experts opine that the time is ripe for humankind to adopt driverless vehicles as social distancing is likely to stay. It is believed a drastic shift in consumer behaviour due to the Coronavirus will lead to a spurt in driverless cars and eventually mark the decline in shared mobility.

Coronavirus has resulted in other innovative solutions too. For instance, the stay at home directive issued by governments has put a new spin on how future deliveries will be handled by restaurants, pharmacies, and grocery owners, among other businesses. Contactless delivery is the new paradigm of innovation to emerge that ensures the safety of customers and delivery personnel.

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(Pic courtesy: Zipline)

In the U.S., Zipline, a medical drone delivery company, is awaiting FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) approval to roll out deliveries without human contact. Its objective is to deliver critical medical supplies to hospitals and ensure that home equipment reaches individuals to enable telemedicine appointments. Autonomous robot vehicles for delivery have also emerged as one of the best practices employed by the transportation sector. Such vehicles were deployed in Wuhan—the epicentre of the Coronavirus—to supply essentials to the city’s residents. Going forward, more such innovations are in the anvil to minimise human intervention in logistics.

The reshaping of learning
The Coronavirus scare has accelerated the adoption of online learning to enable both students and teachers to embrace an enriched digital experience. Almost overnight, schools and universities across the globe have reoriented traditional teaching methodology to adapt to a dynamic digital classroom.

After the US, India’s EdTech sector is the second biggest in the world and is valued at $2bn. In India, virtual classrooms are being made more effective by innovative EdTech startups such as Byjus, Vedantu, Unacademy, Toppr and UpGrad. Many are offering classes for free and leveraging AI and gamification to add value to classroom learning.
Given the nature of the Coronavirus pandemic, online learning is here to stay. In my view, the innovation ecosystem will only thrive if entrepreneurs cater to all segments of learners. Experiential learning, anytime learning and self-learning are the new pockets of growth for EdTech companies.

The EdTech sector is poised for further growth as expenditure on AR/VR technologies for digital learning is expected to increase to $12.6bn in 2025. Strangely, it took the Coronavirus tragedy to show that technology-enabled education is the new horizon of opportunity for EdTech startups everywhere.

E-commerce and changing customer behaviour
As the Coronavirus threat continues to spread, self-quarantines and social distancing have become the norm. In these gloomy times, e-commerce businesses have received a boost as consumers have turned to online shopping and other digital options, in lieu of physical shopping environments. Further, with an increasing number of people working from home, consumer behaviour will be affected by the current disruptive economic and social circumstances created by the Coronavirus.

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Recently, e-commerce players such as Amazon, Grofers, Flipkart and Bigbasket saw a sudden surge in demand, resulting in product shortages in certain categories. In the coming months, online retailers can expect a further spike in orders as the average consumer’s shopping patterns have undergone a radical change. I believe now would be a good time for the e-commerce industry to capitalise on the new opportunities that the shift in consumer behaviour presents.

Redefining the new norm of Work from Home
The rapidly spreading Coronavirus has heralded a new era in the future of work that is here to stay. Work from Home has become the new norm adopted by organisations. It has emerged as a potential gamechanger in how businesses will operate once the crisis blows over. However, in the face of uncertainty, businesses can use the remote learning paradigm to create an enabling environment for their workforce.

The mandatory social distancing policy has led to businesses investing in new technology tools to make work from home seamless and efficient. Organisations across the world are using newer technologies and virtual web conferencing/meeting tools to facilitate remote working. Zoom, GoToMeeting, G Suite and Webx are some leading tools that have enabled organisations to communicate with employees, clients, vendors and other partners. The significance of remote working hits home when technology behemoths Google and Facebook announced an extension of working from home policy until end 2020. It’s not likely employees will return to office full-time anytime before 2021.

As it turns out, the new rules of work have important implications for workforce productivity and the way we will work and interact in the future.

Startups: Change the world order in the age of Coronavirus
The world as we knew it before the Coronavirus has already transformed since the virus outbreak. With social distancing and work from home being the new normal, stakeholders in the Indian startup ecosystem are pivoting to channelise innovation.

From basic apps to complex diagnostic algorithms, startups are developing innovative tech solutions –across industries—to give back to the society. The Indian government has also trained the spotlight on innovation. Its flagship Startup India initiative has launched a competition for budding innovators and companies to contribute creative solutions to fight the Coronavirus crisis.

In the weeks ahead, agile startups will gain further visibility as innovation enablers that aid people and businesses deeply affected by the pandemic. Thus, the need of the hour is for startups to swiftly adapt to the new changes and seize the unique opportunities presented by the pandemic. These organisations should rise to the challenge and assume a larger role to support local communities, the country and the world during this difficult time.

The question everyone is asking is whether we will ever go back to the earlier normal after the outbreak ends. I don’t see the clock being reset. The Coronavirus will usher in a new normal that will create a unique set of opportunities. Startups across the world should seek opportunity in chaos and capitalise on the new trends to build the new normal.
If a journey of growth has to be continued, now is the time for startups to display resilience, chutzpah and creativity. Only when they think outside the box can they innovate and create future opportunities for business.

The writer is CEO, T-Hub.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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