How an entrepreneurial approach can help end the COVID-19 crisis

1 May 2020

Written by Professor Mark Dodgson, UQ Business School and Professor David Gann, Imperial College for The World Economic Forum

  • The evidence base and experimentation of science are essential to ending the COVID-19 crisis
  • Universities are analysing and sharing data to inform policy-makers
  • Entrepreneurs are repurposing their equipment to help fight the pandemic

Scientists and entrepreneurs spend their lives anticipating and creating the future. They design techniques and practices to experiment and explore new options, and adapt quickly to evidence, pivoting into new areas when necessary.

COVID-19 has unleashed a wave of innovation as well as new innovation challenges. The evidence base and experimentation of science, coupled with the agility and risk-taking of entrepreneurs, are major elements of this wave and essential to ending the crisis and building a post-COVID-19 world.

It is no accident that the global hubs of innovation are located in proximity to deep scientific capabilities and the universities that underpin them. Universities provide a never-ending flow of high-quality, independent ideas, activated by their talent and facilities.

How universities can tackle the pandemic

Universities around the world are collaborating to address the immediate challenges of COVID-19, marshalling their resources, people, materials and facilities. They are analysing and sharing data to inform policy-makers and the public, such as through Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center and Imperial College’s infectious disease modelling. The latter’s modelling triggered policy shifts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Universities are crucial institutions for the international response to the pandemic.

—Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford

As the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson argues, universities are crucial institutions for the international response to the pandemic. From the search for a vaccine, to the rapid design and manufacture of ventilators, to the mental health challenges of self-isolation, universities are in the vanguard of the battle against coronavirus. They are collaborating with research funders such as The Wellcome Trust and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which are helping to coordinate scientific efforts to eradicate COVID-19.

But universities are facing immediate threats that could seriously damage their ability to shape a response through this crisis. The financial reliance on international student fees of many top universities has become a dangerous dependency. Universities are worried about declining research budgets and donations from philanthropy. How universities manage the coronavirus crisis, and what its impact will be on their research and teaching, remains a challenging issue, and one that will require significant changes in their strategies and practices. While universities have shown remarkable responsiveness in moving thousands of teaching programmes online, they need an equally agile response in their research and engagement activities.

Universities with strengths in medicine, public health, bio-engineering, data science, social psychology, business and economics will need to continue focusing on collaborative research, for example, to understand COVID-19 and its mutations; develop quick and simple mass testing and new forms of personal protection; create vaccines and cures; and understand the social, economic and political consequences of lockdowns.

The scientific solutions that are making a difference

Important lessons can be learned from the rapid response of science-based entrepreneurial businesses.

DnaNudgethe world’s first lab-in-a-cartridge consumer nutrition business, rapidly responded by re-coding its diagnostic chip for COVID-19 RNA. Its founder, Chris Toumazou, Imperial College’s Regius Professor of Engineering, redeployed the company’s entire team to create an in-field test that provides results in around an hour, rather than having to send samples to a central lab and wait hours or days. This life-saving technology has already been through the first round of successful trials on COVID-19 patients in London and is being validated on a much larger group. Its original design as a consumer technology makes it easy to use, offering a quick solution for testing healthcare staff every day as they come to work. It also holds potential to provide confidence in bringing employees back to work as lockdown ends.

Directa Plusa world leader in the production and supplier of graphene-based products for use in consumer and industrial markets, was founded and spun-out by the chief scientist, chief technical officer and a senior executive from Union Carbide. Its factory and R&D facility are located in Lomazzo, close to Milan in Italy’s Lombardy region. Giulio Cesareo, its co-founder and CEO, found his company in the eye of the storm as Italy experienced one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe. He rapidly redeployed Directa’s R&D team and production engineers to work on graphene-infused textiles with the aim of manufacturing prototype protective clothing for hospital staff. They had already tested its fabrics, proving they were bacteriostatic and dermatologically safe, and moved swiftly to create regenerative facemasks and test viro-static properties. Such protective clothing is in short supply and will be needed for the safe return to work of key employees.

Researcher is a start-up founded by Olly Cooper, previously at academic publisher Taylor & Francis, and Ramiz Nathani a University College London chemistry post-doctoral fellow. Its mission is to help the world’s 14 million scientists and researchers make breakthroughs faster by connecting them to new research results that might be important for their work. Use of Researcher’s AI-based smartphone app grew swiftly with over 1.5 million scientists from more than 4,000 institutions regularly receiving tailored results from over 15,000 journals. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the team engineered a portal – the COVID-19 International Research Collaboration – to accelerate the publication, review, updating and dissemination of research, making it easily accessible across disciplines.

The agility of such science-based entrepreneurial companies to leverage their networks and repurpose their expertise and equipment shows how ingenuity and resources can be combined to help create a safer and more certain future. These examples hold lessons for larger organizations that need to increase their capacity to adapt, improving their flexibility, resiliency and responsiveness.

Healthcare providers, regulatory bodies and international medical and health organizations are necessarily cautious in deploying novel treatments, new equipment, testing regimes and practices. They rightly depend upon results from rigorous trials and ethical approval processes before launching new interventions. These processes, which are so important in safeguarding the public against unintended consequences in normal times, may require judicious relaxation, alongside accompanying legal protections, in dealing with the pandemic. Healthcare organizations need to innovate their own processes to rapidly assess and utilize relevant technologies and processes emerging from entrepreneurial ventures, and swiftly scale up new practices.

science-based entrepreneurs
Researchers depend upon results from rigorous trials and ethical approval processes
Image: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute

Large companies with manufacturing and distribution expertise equally need to develop new processes to work with smaller entrepreneurial ventures and help them to scale up and deliver innovation. Some firms are repurposing their manufacturing processes from paints to hand sanitizers or from automobiles to ventilators. More innovation and greater scale is needed. Large businesses can learn from the agility with which entrepreneurial firms have been able to pivot. Large pharmaceutical companies, such as GSK and Sanofi, which are partnering to prepare for the scale of response needed to COVID-19, need to be prepared and quickly adjust their production and logistics systems to seize opportunities provided by entrepreneurial firms.

Ending the COVID-19 crisis will require the combination of rigour and speed. We look to the rigour of science for new data, tests and vaccines. We look to entrepreneurship to provide the responsiveness and agility so necessary to quickly translate research into practice.

This article is republished from The World Economic Forum under the Creative Commons License. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum or The University of Queensland.