The coronavirus has confined millions of people to their homes, left millions jobless and resulted in tens of thousands of fatalities worldwide. Whilst we remain in the middle of this crisis, already, many businesses are suffering from the shock of having to close so suddenly.

There are, however, some businesses that may be given the opportunity to thrive as the global demand for innovations that tackle the disease, builds. Some start-ups, entrepreneurs and SMEs are uniquely placed in the new world defined by the coronavirus. While global markets have been hard hit by investors panicking about the inevitable destruction of many businesses, there is now a desperate search for sparks of hope in the form of organisations that have the technology or ideas to tackle the virus, or offer services to plug the vast gap that has emerged from society shutting down.

For example, as many medical facilities close their doors to focus on tackling the virus, there has been a surge in demand for digital doctor apps. Apps such as Kry – the most downloaded doctor app in Europe - has seen a 61% spike in downloads compared to this period last year and consultations are up 80%. Unsurprisingly, consultations for viral symptoms via the app are up more than 240%.

“Digital healthcare can help add scale and alleviate capacity issues,” says Johannes Schildt, Kry’s chief executive and cofounder. The start-up has even launched new products, including a free coronavirus symptom checker. 

In addition, Paris-based doctor app Qare has also experienced 25% growth since the disease was declared a pandemic by the WHO. Qare’s chief executive Olivier Thierry said: “We have had to scale up our operations, providing faster, shorter self-service training tutorials for doctors — something that we can do with, but that we could have done without.”

Other start-ups responding to the crisis include those in the smart robot sector. Robots are the one segment of the workforce unable to get sick and this makes them ideal for carrying out tasks that are deemed high exposure risk for humans as they are able to perform tasks in hospitals or contact those in isolation without risk of further spreading the disease.

For instance, SME Blue Ocean Robotics from Denmark has developed several autonomous robot types including ‘UVD robots’ - autonomous disinfection robots help kill viruses and bacteria in hospitals using UV light. Since launching two years ago, their UVD robots have seen 400% year-on-year growth. Indeed, in the peak of the China epidemic, the start-up received its biggest order of 100 robots, and orders continue to flood in.

Social isolation is a new way of life for most of the world and yet, much of society is ill-equipped to live in such a way. Loneliness was a major issue across Europe before Coronavirus struck and now it is set to reach unprecedented levels. Several entrepreneurs are offering solutions to help alleviate the pressure of isolation and growing as a result. For example, social robot start-up CareClever offers telepresence robots to support older people and reduce reliance on the care system. Its Cutii robot is an autonomous mobile robot that uses artificial intelligence to learn user behaviours and preferences. It also includes privacy safeguards and does not rely on the major technology companies’ services, such as Amazon Alexa and no personal data will ever be sold to marketers or other third parties, said the company. In addition, Cutii allows remote patient monitoring (RPM) through tele-health consultations which can be scheduled and conducted from the comfort and familiarity of the person’s home.

During the coronavirus, CareClever are planning to provide the Cutii robots to retirement homes for free. “It will be our contribution to help elderly people to keep up morale,” says founder and chief executive Antoine Bataille.

Other robotic start-ups include No Isolation, an organisation able to provide communications tools and tablets for those experiencing loneliness, a far greater issues now many are confined to their homes. No Isolation’s KOMP tablet is a one-button computer, made specifically for those who have little to no experience using smartphones, computers and tablets. With KOMP, the entire family can easily connect to the device through an app and send photos, messages and make two-way video calls. Many seniors who are in the risk group are self-isolating,” explains founder Karen Dolva. “We don’t know how long this will last, so it’s important to establish good routines quickly, and regularly check in with each other during the workday to make sure we are not isolating ourselves.”

Other start-up sectors seeing a spike in growth include the biotech sector. Companies such as Germany’s Curevac are finding growth opportunities as a result of their ability to fight the coronavirus. Curevac focuses on the potential of mRNA – the messenger molecule that carries target-specific instructions for making a protein for a gene – the building blocks of DNA. The company have analysed millions of naturally occurring DNA and mRNA sequences to develop an insight into the RNA never been seen before. These findings enabled the company to develop an extensive in-house nucleotide sequence library to assemble the various pieces of the mRNA puzzle for therapeutic use, without having to rely on additional chemical modifications in the RNA. The company believe that if they can develop an mRNA protein that can ‘switch off’ the coronavirus, it will have found a cure.

Another start-up taking their ideas and exploring their application in tackling the coronavirus include UK-based BenevolentAI. BenevolentAI, is known for building artificially intelligent systems that help find drugs to treat chronic diseases. Yet, just weeks into the outbreak, the startup was able to use its predictive tools to suggest a number of potentially useful medicines. “It’s the first time we’ve turned our systems toward an infectious disease,” explains chief executive Baroness Joanna Shields. For example, the company’s systems quickly identified baricitinib, a drug currently approved for rheumatoid arthritis, as a possible drug to battle the coronavirus due to its potential to reduce the ability of the virus to infect lung cells. 

“Obviously epidemics require fast responses and machines excel in rapidly developing circumstances. Given the growing number of cases of infection and the immediate need for a therapy, we focused our research on approved drugs that had already passed rigorous safety testing and could be given to patients immediately,” Shields continued.

The effects of the coronavirus are set to be far-reaching, touching every aspect of daily life. As we fight to save the lives of the vulnerable, it is the companies that are agile and adaptable that will survive and thrive, in this new climate. Start-ups that help get the world back on track, and restore our way of life, are likely to attract the greatest flow of investment, forcing the larger, more cumbersome businesses to re-examine their business models and adapt for the new post-corona world.

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