Startups Can Help Fight the Coronavirus

Startups are terrific at deploying incredible technology to make our lives easier, healthier and more fun.

But we really need startups to help us get through the next few months as we fight against COVID-19. This should be in their wheelhouse. This is what startups do. They meet old needs in new ways. Or they address new challenging problems – like the novel coronavirus – in innovative ways.

It isn’t going to be easy. Startups typically play the long game. They usually spend years developing a solution and then more years marketing that solution.

A fly-by-night problem, even one as huge as COVID-19, isn’t in their normal bailiwick. You can’t expect a company strategizing for long-term success to all of a sudden effectively address short-term and temporary problems.

Startups also have a scale problem. By definition, startups are small. Size alone limits their impact, even when they seem to have the perfect technology or service.

But there’s still a critical role for startups in this fight.

Tech startups specialize in upgrading services by orders of magnitude. Food delivery and online-enabled grocery shopping orders have surged. Americans would feel far more handcuffed and isolated without these services.

They are making hospitals more efficient. They’re easing access to doctors through telemedicine technologies. And they’re making staying at home more palatable with a variety of delivery services and online fitness programs.

But wouldn’t it be great if they could also increase hospital capacity… squeeze more office hours out of a doctor’s schedule… and identify exactly who needs to stay home and who can venture out safely?

Startups are not the magic solution. But they are making some things easier.

I just heard from our friends at NowRx (a company we recommended to our First Stage Investor readers). NowRx offers free same-day delivery of medications. They say they’re “scrambling to keep up with the surge in business due to the coronavirus.” Yes, it’s an early-stage startup with a limited presence in the San Francisco Bay Area. But every little bit helps.

Moderna Therapeutics is a pharma company that IPO’d in late 2018. It’s much smaller than the behemoths it competes with. Yet Moderna, along with the National Institutes of Health, has developed a potential vaccine using its messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutic technology. (Geek alert: mRNA transports genetic information from DNA to the ribosome. Its mRNA can turn cells into vaccine- or drug-manufacturing factories.)

Human clinical trials have begun. It’s not the only vaccine in development. Many other companies (both public and private) are working on cures. But this one is fast-tracking human trials. It could be approved before the others. It will still take at least 12 to 18 months, according to public health officials.

Another area where startups can help is apps. Useful apps can be produced fairly quickly and on short notice. I found a coronavirus tracker app for my iPhone. I found another app that follows coronavirus-related news and relief programs. And there are a number of apps for working from home.

There should be more apps. But Apple is accepting coronavirus-related apps only from deeply credentialed medical and educational institutions. Apple is doing this to deter profiteering. But blocking legitimate apps from a wide variety of providers is a big price to pay. Apple needs to find a more practical middle ground.

Tech startups are stepping up in other ways. Zoom is making its video conferencing platform available for free to K-12 schools in Japan, Italy and the U.S. Alibaba is donating 500,000 test kits and 1 million face masks (following similar donations to Japan and Europe) to the United States. I’m sure more startups will be making contributions in the future. But this feels more like startup charity than deploying startup technology in critical ways.

Can startups do more if prodded or financially incentivized? The EU thinks so. It just created a $180 million fast-track for funding startups developing technologies that could help combat the COVID-19 outbreak. I urge the U.S. to do something similar and with a bigger pot. There’s still time. The virus isn’t going away anytime soon. Startups not only have the best feel for what new technology is capable of solving, but are small and nimble enough to take on fast-track projects.

Startups want to be part of the solution. It’s in their DNA. Let’s help them help us.